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citizen scientists



Public Lab equips citizen scientists to collect local, verifiable environmental data using simple tools

On-the-ground data collected around the world advances the knowledge economy and collective understanding of our world

Public Lab supports average citizens to understand and leverage the data they collect to drive positive change related to human health and the environment

Citizen data complements data collected by governments and industry, increasing the breadth and value of data resources

Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science has created an open-source network that equips average citizens to collect and share data about their local environments. The global network of citizen scientists increases the efficiency and breadth of data collected —all with simple, DIY tools.
Innovation Summary

Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) is a project that enables average citizens around the world to collect verifiable information about their local environments at a scale and resolution that no single organization or instrument can—and enhance the collective understanding of the world from an on-the-ground perspective.

Public Lab is a global research and social movement that develops affordable, community-based monitoring tools, and supports a participatory approach to science.  Their online platform provides instructions for citizens to construct simple, low-cost measurement tools using commonly available materials such as used DVD-rs and paperboard, as well as pre-made devices they can purchase—including DIY spectrometers, aerial mapping toolkits, and inexpensive infrared cameras.  These tools are deployed on highly visible kites and balloons that foster visibility and accountability, raise awareness and spark dialogue when data collectors are in the field.

With these tools, participants collect a combination of visual data, including digital images and infrared images of spectra. Public Lab has created an online platform where participants can connect to other members, share their data and understand its meaning. The platform includes a growing open-source library of spectra against which users can compare their uploaded spectra.  The Lab is currently working with Google Summer of Code to develop a tool to automatically match uploaded spectra against the library, and with NASA to look at data accuracy and innovative spectrometer use cases. Public Lab support staff help to make connections between participants, organize trainings and lead off-line outreach activities.


By enabling local, on-the-ground experts to collect data related to issues that matter to the communities in which they live—including air and water quality, and chemical exposures—citizen scientists who are part of Public Lab increase the efficiency and accuracy of data collection. In addition, their access to this information heightens their role in informing health-related risks in their community.

Collecting high-resolution, location-specific data requires significant time and financial investment by industry and government. The “small data” collected by citizens—using simple tools from commonly available resources—complements “big data” collected on a larger scale, and leverages people’s interest, time, on-the-ground expertise and desire to connect to their communities. Public Lab has already partnered with the US EPA to monitor air quality in New York City and with NASA to monitor flares from oil refineries in the Gulf Coast.

In addition to monitoring environmental issues, the data collection tools have been used to monitor social issues including cultural assets within communities, and emergencies such as spills, leaks and chemical releases. A broad, dispersed network of data collectors can enable immediate identification and response to risks, and enable targeted and efficient responses.


Public Lab was founded in 2010 in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to enable local residents to track and see the full extent of the oil spill.  A team led by an MIT graduate student studying aerial mapping collaborated with local nonprofits to collect aerial images of the spill using cameras attached to balloons and kites dispatched above the no-fly-zone over the spill. Using open-source software, the team stitched together the high-resolution, location-specific images that illustrated the full extent of the impacts on over 100 miles of coastline. Through a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, the stitched maps are uploaded to Google Earth as a data layer and are globally available.

Since then they have grown into an international network of citizen scientists who are empowered to ask questions and find answers in the world around them. Currently the organization is focused on expanding participation and increasing the engagement level of participants.





Proteins are present in all living things. They are part of many diseases, and can be a part of the cure

Knowing how a protein is structured is critical for learning how it behaves and ultimately for cures or solutions

People’s pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities make them adept at protein pattern-folding tasks

FoldIt uses gamification to leverage brainpower and creativity to help develop medicines, vaccines, and even biofuels

FOLDIT is a computer game that involves citizens in solving scientific puzzles for research. In 2011, players of Foldit unraveled the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, which is an AIDS-causing monkey virus
Innovation Summary

Proteins are present in all living things, from the human body to plants, bacteria, and viruses. They are a part of many diseases, and can be a part of the cure. Knowing more about the 3D structure of proteins (or how they “fold”) is critical for understanding how those proteins function.

In Foldit, players are presented with a model of a protein, which they can fold using a host of tools. The game evaluates how good of a fold the player has made, and gives them a score. The gamification of protein folding enables scientists to use individual’s strategies and intuition to solve complex problems that traditional computational methods cannot match. Protein structures created in Foldit are providing essential information to help develop medicines, vaccines, and even biofuels. In 2011, players of Foldit unraveled the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, which is an AIDS-causing monkey virus. The participation of citizen scientists is changing the ways in which scientific research is conducted.


Foldit is important both because of its methods and its potential outcomes. First, Foldit is an important tool for leveraging intellect, our only truly unlimited resource. It engages experts to leverage the brainpower and creativity of citizens across the globe. It increases the speed and efficiency at which problems can be solved, and does so using minimum physical resources. Second, Foldit focuses on important areas of inquiry in medicine and energy. One particular line of inquiry relates to creating new biofuels to replace existing fuel sources.


Foldit was developed by the Center for Game Science at University of Washington in collaboration with UW Department of Biochemistry on the premise that humans can be more effective than computers at certain tasks related to understanding proteins, and that citizens can contribute to important scientific research through game play.