What happens when you introduce biologists who want microbial samples from 500 feet up in the air to the Public Laboratory community of balloon mappers? Or play matchmaker between entomologists with global biodiversity records dating back to the 1700s and data scientists who are jonesing to visualize? How about getting 30 people in a room who all want to power a microprocessor from a bicycle wheel?

Answer: Fast development on far-out strategies and tactics for the environment.

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EcoHack.org website designed by Sergio Alvarez of Vizzuality.

On November 9, a Friday night, 130 people gathered in the former Pfizer manufacturing plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., to kick off EcoHack3. Fueled by the “hyperlocal” soda made right in the building, 12 people gave Ignite-style talks to pitch their projects and attract people to work with them on Saturday.

The EcoHack concept was first created by Vizzuality to bring scientists and technologists together to jump-start innovation around environmental problems — not just technical experts like statisticians, data visualizers, and programmers, but also graphic designers, cartographers, big-picture thinkers, hands-on crafters, and generally people with common sense who care. “We created this because we know that people want to work on ideas that matter, but it’s hard to identify what really needs doing,” said Andrew Hill of Vizzuality. “So bringing scientists that have problems together with talented people that can help was the idea.”

The first EcoHack took place a year ago on November 11 at NYU’s ITP, and has happened in New York every six months since then. For EcoHack3, we were joined by two other vertical events: FarmHack and BikeHack. Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science is a co-organizer of EcoHack.

Right 2 Know: Water, wetlands & sewage

The Newtown Creek Alliance walked in with thick paper sheaves of graphs and charts courteously printed out by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. This was in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request filed by Kate Zidar.

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The Overflow team. Credit: Danny Kim

Leif Percifield of DontFlush.me and Thomas Levine of Scraper Wiki got to work and identified the key records that, when extracted and analyzed, would reveal how much rain caused significant sewage overflow events in New York. By focusing on the Newtown Creek Wastewater Control Plant, the hackers reduced the “paper database” by an order of magnitude. Using a ruler, the team took turns extracting 480 records (hourly reports over 48 hours for 10 storms at one sewage treatment plant) from 10 printed graphs and built a spreadsheet. A quick graph began to correlate rain volume with overflow events.

Thanks to this ecohack, the dozen weather stations that activists have installed around the Newtown Creek Watershed can now be used to alert residents when their drains are likely to be draining straight into the river.

See this map created for DontFlush.Me by Carl Wiedemann and the folks at CartoDB to identify which sewage plant handles wastewater from your house, and which pipe dumps your wastewater directly into the waterways during an overflow event:

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The DontFlush.Me overflow map shows your sewer shed and the end of your pipe into the river.

Levine came to EcoHack with a goal: to help Gulf Coast ecologists and advocates at the Gulf Restoration Network oversee permits granted by the Army Corps of Engineers. Automation would help both government and the public review the cumulative impacts of wetland developments. Together, he and Max Richman of Datahh created an easy-to-use map, where each permit is represented by a dot with mouse-over information.

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Dots show permits for wetland impacts which are under public review in the New Orleans District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Map by Thomas Levine and Max Richman, hosted by MapBox.

Floating Cotton Candy Microbe Sponge

With so many scientists around, ideas for crowdsourcing the collection of “never before possible” data sets were literally flying through the air. Biologist Andrew Hill brought up the point that aerial microbial populations may have profound yet unknown impacts on the world around us. Some known areas of interest include climate and weather, human health, agricultural health, and global environmental change. It has been found previously that clouds offer a unique environment for fairly abundant microbial populations and that there are enough microbes in the clouds to affect physicochemical processes.

So building on the ideas of microbial geneticists like Russell Neches, Pierre Amato, Johannes Engelken, and Jessica Green, and encouraged by the global thinking of Craig Mills, we started brainstorming how to sample these microbial populations.

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Microbial Census brainstorming. Credit: Valerie Farber

The first idea was to grab an air sample, but either fans plus filters, or the alternative 500 feet of tubing, were bound to be too heavy to lift with our 6-foot weather balloons. Then conversation turned to sending up a cooler-than-air surface and catchment bottle, so we could capture microbes in condensate; however, pumps and batteries were in short supply on a Saturday.

To get back to basics, the group focused on stickiness and sterility, and recalled Russell Neches’ idea of creating a high surface area, lightweight matrix, AKA cotton candy. Now, this idea stuck, literally. Mariko Kosaka recreated a childhood project she did in Japan, and a prototype was born.

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Mariko Kosaka wields a homemade cotton candy machine over a camp stove.

The next steps for this project will be to procure DNA and DNA-ase free sugar, sterilize the components, and make the cotton candy in a lab when it’s time to lift it into the air.

Hacking #BikeNYC: peer pedal power

The bicycle community in New York City is known for its solitary nature — you against the city, muscling through traffic, surviving on your own wits. BikeHack was born around the idea that these independent folks have incredibly valuable information to share with each other. Formulated from the #BikeNYC meetup, this team combines an interest in urbanism, technology, and multi-modal transportation. At the hackathon, they focused on how bicycling could become participatory, social, and safer.

Noel Hidalgo set the stage for hacking #BikeNYC by delving into the hashtag #bikeNYC — a successful community campaign created to raise the visibility of the NYC-based biking community. Matthew Willse of cyclee.org furthered a prototype platform for riders that cuts through the noise of tweets and data to highlight information relevant to their regular commutes. Willse, together with Kim Burgas and Rod Huntress from Bikeapolis.us, brainstormed types of data that could be pulled into such an app: bike shops, bike racks, bike share locations, popular routes or biking groups, crash sites, and potholes. Chris Whong created an animation of Boston’s bike share data. Caroline Howe contributed data diving to ALL of the above projects.

On the hardware side, Dan Selden taught people about his power-generating bicycle hub that makes power available for a wide range of social, mapping, and city-tracking functions. To take advantage of this power source, Zach Menegakis got a couple of raspberry pis up and running and connected to a GPS device — ready for social biking.

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BikeHack workstation. Credit: Danny Kim.

Katja Seltmann, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, brought a USB stick with 500,000 records of bugs and plants dating since the 1700s. With a tagline of “So many bugs, so many appetites” she explained that each bug was collected along with the plant it was sitting on. Because of these rich spatial records, there’s a treasure trove of information from which you can interpret how bug behavior changes with climate change, with questions such as when particular plants were flowering when and the extent of habitats through the centuries. Considering that bugs are overwhelmingly responsible for the pollination of our food crops, knowing how their behavior may change in the future is important to humanity’s survival.

EcoHack has attracted scientists, technologists, and activists from the United States and Europe, and happens every six months by popular demand. Projects are imagined over drinks, prototyped over pizza, and expanded at subsequent EcoHacks.

This year’s EcoHack was somewhat unique since we set up shop in an abandoned cafeteria at a former Pfizer manufacturing plant. Some of us sneaked upstairs to marvel at the hulking, multi-floor steel pharmaceutical machinery. Although we had limited bandwidth post-Sandy, seen in another light, this was the perfect place to be as the city was recovering. This building has been newly colonized by small businesses making croissants, kimchi, soda, BBQ, ice cream, etc., so we had plenty of local refreshments! Revitalizing this property, where Public Lab NYC already has a lab space with co-working, is a project of Acumen Capital Partners — cool folks who, on another property, are hosting the largest roof garden in New York City.

EcoHack will take place again in April, either in New York City — or perhaps a city near you.

Director of urban environment at Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science and co-founder of TreeKIT, Liz Barry develops geographic tools and civic science methods for collaborative cities. Her background is in urban landscape design, and she teaches at Columbia University, Parsons the New School for Design, and Pratt Institute. Previously, she worked at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill planning international new cities and campuses, at Durham Inner-city Gardeners (DIG) coordinating youth urban agriculture enterprise, and has traveled around the country catalyzing interaction among strangers with a “Talk To Me” sign – a project that received international press including The New York Times, AP, CNN, Oprah and NPR’s “This American Life.” She likes to play outside.