Recently, a resident of Plaquemines Parish, La., made a striking comment to me about the importance of local involvement and knowledge in post-disaster projects:

Listen to the people that have been down here, lived here, fished here, and camped here their whole entire lives and even their parents’ lives, for generations. Because they know how these waters are, they know how the tides come and go, they know how the storms affect this area, they provide a lot of valuable information and a lot of valuable ways that people can accomplish what they want to do without destroying the things that we do …

The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) is a community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. Resonating with Public Laboratory’s vision of community engagement and leadership, a little over a year ago — during the BP oil spill — I began working with upwards of 100 Gulf Coast volunteers, as well as fellow team members Jeff Warren and Stewart Long, on Grassroots Mapping, a project to create aerial maps hand-in-hand with Gulf Coast residents that documented ecologically vulnerable sites before, during and after oil hit.

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Balloon mapping captures aerial imagery of spill-affected sites in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

In the late fall of 2010, Jeff, Stewart and myself, as well as Sara Wylie, Adam Griffith, Liz Barry and Mathew Lippincott, formed the core working team behind Public Laboratory, our expertise spanning a number of different fields from geography, biology and anthropology to technology, design and urban planning.

Our vision in forming Public Lab has been to rethink the way that people interact with information production and analysis, believing that lasting engagement with science can be generated through actually doing it rigorously in people’s everyday environments.

putting science at the center of civic life

So how are we re-imagining civic science? PLOTS argues that civic science places scientific inquiry at the heart of civic life. The ability to test the coherence of ideas about the world is no longer limited by technical barriers to recording, validating, analyzing or sharing data which originally necessitated the “professionalization” of science.

Through our work, however, we’ve learned that people who are paying attention to their local environment have a limited set of ways to respond to received information, primarily either resisting or over-reacting; this is the audience we have identified as lacking tools and methods to do rigorous investigation on their own.

Many contemporary “citizen science“ projects give non-experts only token opportunities to participate in the process of scientific inquiry — typically performing data collection and record-keeping for someone else’s research. PLOTS offers a more open and inclusive process for civic science projects. Members of a particular community are involved in every step of the process, from framing research questions to innovating new research tools to gathering and interpreting data using open-source software.

Experts and other participants learn together — and from each other — all along the way. Participants are never “trained” to “do science.” Instead, they are invited to find their own latent capacity to ask meaningful and relevant questions about the places they call home and to leverage their innate rich understanding of local processes and priorities.

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Several groups in the NYC area are using PLOTS tools including balloon mapping to document at-risk ecological sites.

Using the BP oil spill mapping project as a pilot, Public Laboratory has already begun a series of new collaborations focused on locally produced environmental and civic data. During the last year, we’ve been working at the Gowanus Canal Superfund site to monitor green infrastructure improvements and sewage and coal tar contamination in the canal. In Butte, Mont., we’ve set up a flight lab and began a project on historical mapping of mountain-top removal sites, and we worked with activists in Ein Kareem, Jerusalem to balloon map a protest for Palestinian independence.

What’s next

Over the next three years, we’ll be setting up site-based projects across the United States to support community action with new low-cost, accessible tools and technologies. These projects, ranging from infrared vegetation monitoring to thermal photography for home insulation, will be developed in collaboration with local community and advocacy groups to address specific local issues. Drawing from the participatory and do-it-yourself techniques which have generated hundreds of gigabytes of citizen-produced environmental map data in the Gulf of Mexico, the Public Lab plans to tackle new problems in new places, while developing a long-term approach for jump-starting and sustaining such efforts on a broader scale.

For more information, or if you are interested in getting involved with the Public Laboratory or want to start your own project with Public Lab, please visit our website at publiclaboratory.org or contact us at team@publiclaboratory.org. You can also follow us on Twitter @PublicLab.

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