This post was co-written by Public Lab organizer Don Blair.

Public Lab is pleased to announce the launch of our fourth Kickstarter today, “Infragram: the Infrared Photography Project.” The idea for the Infragram was originally conceptualized during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and as a tool for monitoring wetland damages. Since then, the concept has been refined to offer an affordable and powerful tool for farmers, gardeners, artists, naturalists, teachers and makers for as little as $35 — whereas near-infrared cameras typically cost $500-$1,200.

Technologies such as the Infragram have similar roles as photography during the rise of credible print journalism — these new technologies democratize and improve reporting about environmental impacts. The Infragram in particular will allow regular people to monitor their environment through verifiable, quantifiable, citizen-generated data. You can now participate in a growing community of practitioners who are experimenting and developing low-cost near-infrared technology by backing the Infragram Project and joining the Public Lab infrared listserve.

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some Background

Infrared imagery has a long history of use by organizations like NASA to assess the health and productivity of vegetation via sophisticated satellite imaging systems like Landsat. It has also been applied on-the-ground in recent years by large farming operations. By mounting an infrared imaging system on a plane, helicopter, or tractor, or carrying around a handheld device, farmers can collect information about the health of crops, allowing them to make better decisions about how much fertilizer to add, and where. But satellites, planes, and helicopters are very expensive platforms; and even the tractor-based and handheld devices for generating such imagery typically cost thousands of dollars. Further, the analysis software that accompanies many of these devices is “closed source”; the precise algorithms used — which researchers would often like to tweak, and improve upon — are often not disclosed.

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Public Lab’s approach

So, members of the Public Lab community set out to see whether it was possible to make a low-cost, accessible, fully open platform for capturing infrared imagery useful for vegetation analysis. Using the insights and experience of a wide array of community members — from farmers and computer geeks to NASA-affiliated researchers — a set of working prototypes for infrared image capture started to emerge. By now, the Public lab mailing lists and website contain hundreds of messages, research notes, and wikis detailing various tools and techniques for infrared photography, ranging from detailed guides to DIY infrared retrofitting of digital SLRs, to extremely simple and low-cost off-the-shelf filters, selected through a collective testing-and-reporting back to the community process.

All of the related discussions, how-to guides, image examples, and hardware designs are freely available, published under Creative Commons and CERN Open Hardware licensing. There are already some great examples of beautiful NDVI/near-infrared photography by Public Lab members — including timelapses of flowers blooming, and balloon-based infrared imagery that quickly reveals which low-till methods are better at facilitating crop growth.

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Using inexpensive, consumer-grade digital cameras and cheap, easily sourced filters, the Public Lab community has developed DIY techniques for capturing NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index; pictured: above middle) and NRG (false-color infrared; pictured: above right) — the same type of imagery used by researchers at NASA and elsewhere to assess plant health and productivity.

What’s next

By now, the level of interest and experience around DIY infrared photography in the Public Lab community has reached a tipping point, and Public Lab has decided to use a Kickstarter as a way of disseminating the ideas and techniques around this tool to a wider audience, expanding the community of users/hackers/developers/practitioners. It’s also a way of generating support for the development of a sophisticated, online, open-source infrared image analysis service, allowing anyone who has captured infrared images to “develop” them and analyze them according to various useful metrics, as well as easily tag them and share them with the wider community. The hope is that by raising awareness (and by garnering supporting funds), Public Lab can really push the “Infrared Photography Project” forward at a rapid pace.

Accordingly, we’ve set ourselves a Kickstarter goal of 5,000 “backers” — we’re very excited about the new applications and ideas that this large number of new community members would bring! And, equally exciting: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has offered to provide a matching $10,000 of support to the Public Lab non-profit if we reach 1,000 backers.

With this growing, diverse community of infrared photography researchers and practitioners — from professional scientists, to citizen scientists, to geek gardeners — we’re planning on developing Public Lab’s “Infrared Photography Project” in many new and exciting directions, including:

  • The creation of a community of practitioners interested in infrared technology, similar to the community that has been created and continues to grow around open-source spectrometry.
  • The development of an archive for the Infrared Photography Project — a platform that will allow people to contribute images and collaborate on projects while sharing data online.
  • Encouragement of agricultural imagery tinkering and the development and use of inexpensive, widely available near-infrared technologies.
  • Development of standards and protocols that are appropriate to the needs, uses and practices of a grassroots science community.
  • Providing communities and individuals with the ability to assess their own neighborhoods through projects that are of local importance.
  • The continued development of a set of tools that will overlap and add to the larger toolkit of community-based environmental monitoring tools such as what SpectralWorkbench.org and MapKnitter.org provide.

We hope you’ll join us by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign and help grow a community of open-source infrared enthusiasts and practitioners!

A co-founder of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Shannon is based in New Orleans as the Director of Outreach and Partnerships. With a background in community organizing, prior to working with Public Lab, Shannon held a position with the Anthropology and Geography Department at Louisiana State University as a Community Researcher and Ethnographer on a study about the social impacts of the spill in coastal Louisiana communities. She was also the Oil Spill Response Director at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, conducting projects such as the first on-the-ground health and economic impact surveying in Louisiana post-spill. Shannon has an MS in Anthropology and Nonprofit Management, a BFA in Photography and Anthropology and has worked with nonprofits for over thirteen years.

Don Blair is a doctoral candidate in the Physics Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a local organizer for The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a Fellow at the National Center for Digital Government, and a co-founder of Pioneer Valley Open Science. He is committed to establishing strong and effective collaborations among citizen / civic and academic / industrial scientific communities through joint research and educational projects. Contact him at http://dwblair.github.io, or via Twitter: @donwblair