Public Lab Fights Back Against Oppressive Science One Data Point at a Time

Science is great, but it's not necessarily democratic. More than 10,000 people want to change that.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, an organic group of scientist and science-literate community advocates came together to try to figure out what had happened. Not content to wait on government reports or put unwavering faith in BP’s self-assessments, this group set about documenting effects in order give those affected the ability to argue with hard data. Technologists and local residents banded together: Fishermen flew massive kites equipped with cameras behind their boats and researchers stitched the imagery into massive maps. Not unlike the oil itself, the interested parties congealed. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science was born.

As it turned out, the Public Lab was as much an organization as a process. It wasn’t long before the network expanded to include 10,000 members researching any number of environmental problems. According to Liz Barry, the director of community development, the not-for-profit group organizes people online and offline to work together, generate data, and solve problems. The idea is to forever change the nature of the debate between communities and industry and to alter the way professional science interacts with local interests.

In a sense, Barry is at the center of an overdue insurgency. She helps arm people with numbers in order to mitigate or fully alleviate the feeling that science is oppressive when it should be just the opposite. After all, science is only political if it is allowed to be.

Why do communities need to be able to do their own research? Is there a sense that outside stakeholders aren’t accurately reporting situations?

Often people facing environmental problems are not in otherwise well-resourced situations. So it’s another burden on top of burdens.

When you go to talk about a situation and all you can do is complain at a town hall meeting, it’s extremely easy to be dismissed and it’s extremely hard to get leverage because there may be industry speaking against you and contradicting your lived experience. These industries may be able to afford very expensive lab tests and issue data sets that basically define reality. For all public discourse and legal purposes, whoever has the biggest data wins.

We wanted to flip that by enabling people to collect data using tools that are completely open-source. The technology of how these tools work is open for anyone to inspect and understand what the data really is saying. It’s not just samples sent away to a lab.

That all makes sense, but there are massive government agencies devoted to doing this work. What can Public Lab accomplish that massive bureaucracy can’t?

In many countries there are not environmental agencies that you can rely on to ensure the public safety. And, even in the United States, human environments are very complex, and both legacy pollution and ongoing pollution is so poorly understood that often situations that people may be living in have just never been studied or understood at a granular scale. So the scale of research is quite mismatched: Most environmental research is driven by satellite imaging. Here, we are collecting one-centimeter-resolution maps.

Industrial interests are very strong, and I think anyone can see that there are multiple facts that are simultaneously true. It is true that the health of a region depends on its economic base, which may very well be industrial. It is also true that the health of a region depends on not having a sick population due to toxic environments. That’s always being mediated, and we are helping people tell their environmental stories, so that all sides can make their case politically.

In the context of the United States, where we have functioning environmental agencies, having everyone be able to speak the same language — of data — lets citizens and government work together. And, in situations where they can’t look to the government, people are managing their own environments, and they need systems to get feedback about their environment.

I know that Public Lab had significant involvement in helping Chicago activists document toxic waste in local neighborhoods and succeeded in pushing for better regulations on Tars Sands byproducts. Can you talk me through that a bit?

There’s a group of Southeast Chicago activists using a combination of tools to deal with uncovered waste piles of petroleum coke [a byproduct of refining bitumen from Canada’s oil sands]. This black dust blows all over people’s food and homes and clothing, and people are breathing it. It’s very hard to capture the environmental problem, so they’re using kites and balloons to make aerial maps. They have so many different images from so many angles over these piles that it’s actually possible to compute the volume of the pile.

This is exciting to me because this is addressing a real need. It’s bringing together multiple kinds of tools and strategies towards advocating for change, there is also many different kinds of expertise at work. The network is really increasing everyone’s capacity. The scientists are learning from the activists, the activists are learning from the scientists and the technologists, and all of this is being published so that those of us elsewhere, around the country or farther, are actually learning how to do community science.

Piles of petroleum coke, or petcoke, in Chicago.

Chris Bentley / Flickr

It’s a prime example of what you call “Citizen Science.” But isn’t science just science on some level? Can you parse the terminology for me a bit?

We use the term ‘community science’ to differentiate it from ‘citizen science’ in the sense that we are working together to develop new technology and answer environmental questions together, versus being part of a large mass of people all fanning out to collect little bits of data to answer someone else’s question.

There are quite a lot of traditional experts participating in the community — what we feel is amazing is that it’s often local residents that set the agenda, and then the expertise of technologists and scientists and policy makers comes to bear, to focus on that backyard or front yard, or waterfront, or riverfront environment.

Community science — though it does equip you as an individual to make a kit and go do something with it — is a profoundly community endeavor.

That distinction makes sense, but what does it look like in action? How does that crowdsourcing impulse mesh with the scientific method?

As you use the software to upload your images and process them into some kind of data, you’ll be connected with tutorials created by other people in the community, your data will get comments from other people that might help you improve who you build your tool to get more accurate data, you’ll get people asking ‘Wow, what were you investigating?’ and connecting you with someone on the other side of the country, maybe on the other side of the world who has been asking just those same things, so that you two can collaborate towards pushing a new frontier. For instance, with the spectrometer there’s an effort to use it to identify petrochemical oils. You can see the difference between food-grade oils and understand if you’re experiencing some kind of food fraud in your kitchen.

What happens when the science leads to a discovery? Are you pursuing traditional or less traditional methods of circulating new information?

Some of our data goes to the press, to the media. We focus on data which is very colorful — either they’re images, they’re infrared spectrums, or they’re actually spectrums showing chemical signatures that are at least accurate enough to compare to other known samples. When this kind of data gets published, it raises awareness, which can bring in a full-scale investigation.

We have a lot of pictures of illegal logging that get published in the press, and that bring enforcement action. Aerial mapping is also used in land tenure cases to document informal uses to push back against development, to document stealth-built portions of the city.

You’re using — completely understandably — a lot of technical language so it feels like it’s worth asking what makes this interesting, maybe even fun, for the people involved in your programs? Who are these people and why does this satisfy them?

They are the people who like geeking out on making the tools, and the people who like putting on a good pair of boots and going out and using the tools, and also the people who understand the policies. That is really a unique mix that is not happening anywhere else.

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