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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.




An Innovative Open Data Initiative

In complex settings like major cities, access to and productive use of data is increasingly critical

Dublinked’s online data store provides access to data from both the public and private sectors

Dublinked’s activities support innovation in social, environmental, and economic arenas

There is significant potential to transfer Dublinked’s model to other cities around the world

Dublinked is a partnership among entities in the Dublin region that provides access to valuable datasets that were previously inaccessible or difficult to find to foster innovation and economic development.



Innovation Summary

Dublinked is a unique open-data initiative based in Dublin, Ireland that supports collaborative and creative problem solving among members of the regional government and industry sectors. Dublinked’s central resource is an online data store for private citizens, government agencies, entrepreneurs, and businesses. Unlike other open-data initiatives that focus solely on opening up public data with an eye to transparency, Dublinked provides broad access to datasets from both the public and private sectors. Dublinked’s objectives include spurring job creation, creating new products and services, and providing a space in which to test new ideas and technologies. The initiative’s scope ranges from supporting large industry working on infrastructure projects, to helping startups develop new apps or supporting social entrepreneurs working to alleviate poverty and improve health outcomes in the city. Several apps, including one that identifies travel routes and another that maps projects being planned across the city, have already been developed.Dublinked also provides opportunities for public and private parties to come together and use data to drive systems-based thinking that can lead to innovative solutions. It organizes workshops to improve relationships and to simplify the processes for people in the region to work together.


Dublinked is ultimately about leveraging existing resources to solve problems. It opens up human and information resources which may previously have been inaccessible or difficult to find, and provides a space for their productive use. It creates an environment to support innovation in social, environmental, and economic arenas, which could lead to solutions that reduce waste, conserve water, optimize traffic flow, or reduce resource use in other ways.

In complex settings like major cities, with the immense scale of the resources and systems at work and the magnitude of data being collected, access to and productive use of data is increasingly critical. Dublinked has created a low-cost model for connecting people with data in a way that benefits both the public sector and businesses, which has the potential to transfer to other cities around the world to help them optimize their resource use.


The idea for Dublinked, which was founded formally in 2011, came about during one of the greatest financial crises Ireland has ever experienced, when it was clear that the city needed new ways to do better with fewer resources. Funding comes from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and four local authorities (Dublin City Council, DunLaoghaire Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council). Members pay a small fee to access data. IBM Research provides open collaboration technologies and tools.



Do we know the real resource costs and benefits of the data cloud?

Unique site visitors, number of clicks, downloads and newsletter subscriptions; customer demographics; water and fuel usage; costs of production compared across factories. Data. Credit to Fat Cow (free data center photos)

In today’s business world, data has become central to strategies for remaining competitive and gaining that elusive market edge. Driving gains in efficiency and informing predictive analytics - data has become a key to accelerating innovation. Combined with our rapidly expanding capacity to collect, track, process, analyze, synthesize and apply massive amounts of information, the result is a frenzy to hoard more and more.

As the collection and storage of data grows, it’s a good time to consider the potential benefits of using that data in relation to the resource costs associated with managing it. Our shift to a virtual world has all but eliminated the visible and cumbersome relics of historic data collection: musty folios of hand-written measurements or reams of reports stacked in a basement. Sure, each piece of digital data is a barely visible package of tiny bits and bytes; but it is matter - it has mass and takes up space. The more we collect and squirrel away into the vast “cloud,” the greater is the demand for resources to power the equipment and systems that makes this possible. The problem is not one individual or business or agency collecting data, but when everyone holds on to everything - often in duplicate, triplicate or more, indefinitely. It all adds up and although the growing mass is virtually invisible, out of sight and largely out of mind, everything must go somewhere.

And that somewhere is the enormously energy-intensive data centers exploding worldwide. With immense energy budgets - and consequent emissions and strain on the existing power grid, as well as high capital costs and physical resources for expansion and construction - these roughly three million centers worldwide consume an estimated 30 billion watts of electricity or the equivalent output from 30 nuclear power plants each year. This according to the New York Times report published last September that thoroughly dispelled any myths about the elegant efficiency and environmental benignity of virtual data. It’s no surprise that a single data center can use more power than a medium-sized town when about a million gigabytes of data must be processed and stored to create a single 3D animated movie, or when each day as much as 2,000 gigabytes of data produced by the New York Stock Exchange alone must not only be stored but also retained for years. According to the US EPA, however, at least in the United States, the federal government is a foremost driver of increased demand for energy storage with its requirements for retention of digital records; information and national security operations; and provision of digital services such as e-filing for taxes, for example. Data is piling up and staying put.

There has been some movement to temper the very real footprint of the phantasmal cloud through measures to “green” up operations, including greater efficiency in equipment design, repurposing empty department stores as data centers, and the use of more renewable power sources (with questionable results). But these interventions to address the symptoms of our data obsession ignore the elephant in the room: how can we improve and re-design our relationship to data itself? In our zeal to know, to gain power, insight, that elusive edge over the competition - have we stopped to weigh the costs and benefits?

We need methods to understand the value of the information we’re collecting and storing relative to the resources being expended to hold on to it. These methods should take into account the benefits of today’s data systems, including our relatively new abilities to search across disparate information sources to make connections and gain important insights. At the same time, they must acknowledge the very real resource costs associated with collecting and storing data, or the energy, water, and other material resources tied up in our data systems. By understanding the relationship between these costs and benefits, we may be able to better prioritize data collection and management - creating new criteria for what data is collected and stored, for example - and ultimately improve the resource performance of our data systems. HP, which just announced new tools to help companies deal with “digital landfills,” estimates that upwards of 50 percent of stored data is not only useless, but costing businesses significant money to maintain and putting companies at risk from potential leaks. While improving the efficiency of data centers is important, imagine the resource savings if we were able to halve the need for data storage.