The Public Lab Blog

stories from the Public Lab community

About the blog | Research | Methods

Black Lives Matter.

by joyofsoy | almost 3 years ago | 0 | 2

Note: this statement was previously shared in our monthly newsletter

Black Lives Matter. Public Lab stands with the millions around the world who have raised their voices in protest of police brutality and systemic injustices toward Black lives. Further, from the expansion of oil and gas facilities in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, to the chronic inaction toward the effects of climate, and the systematic targeting of polluting industries towards BIPOC communities — all stem from a legacy that is rooted in and perpetuated by oppression, racism, and violence.

We commit to supporting Black voices, movements, and organizations. We commit to centering those that have historically been (and continue to be) excluded from science, technology, and environmental decision-making. We commit to maintaining a welcoming community, free from racism, with accessible places of entry into community science that elevate, build, and strengthen the capacities of communities and their leaders to rise. And we commit to dedicating our resources to forefronting leadership from those disproportionately affected by environmental injustices and systemic racism.

Public Lab recognizes and honors the lived experiences and expertise, and strives to build relationships grounded in trust with frontline communities. We envision a future where those most impacted by environmental injustices direct the efforts to protect their communities, collective health, and well-being.

Read more Follow


The Bucket: Updating and open-sourcing a community air monitoring tool

by Shannon | almost 3 years ago | 2 | 2

By: Dr. Gwen Ottinger (Fair Tech Collective) and Shannon Dosemagen

The "bucket" is a low-cost, community-friendly air sampler that helps people measure toxic chemicals such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide in their air. Developed in the late 1990s, it was one of the first (if not the very first) do-it-together environmental monitors. Communities living next to oil refineries and petrochemical plants gathered to build their own buckets. They established phone trees to make sure that, when noxious fumes enveloped their neighborhood, someone would take a sample. They used measurements from the samples to hold companies accountable, not only for their emissions but for lying to communities about them.

The buckets were a source of inspiration for each of us, early in our careers. Gwen saw them as a powerful new way that communities could participate in science and challenge the shortcomings of scientists' approaches to understanding pollution. They led her to her dissertation research and inform the conclusions of the book she is currently writing about the role of science in restorative justice. Throughout Shannon's early career, she focused on creating collaborative spaces by connecting people to their local environment using science, art, and media. Attracted to working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade because of the direct link the organizing model made between science, data, and advocacy, Shannon went on to co-found Public Lab. Her hope was that, in a time of rapid technological innovation, Public Lab could be a vehicle to build on and expand the science and advocacy model into other realms of addressing environmental injustices.

Revisiting the bucket in 2020

Over the past decade, buckets have fallen out of favor. Communities have become more focused on particulate matter, which buckets don't measure, even though toxic chemicals are still a problem. They seek continuous measurements of air pollution, rather than the snapshots of just the worst moments. Regulators are increasingly willing to support community monitoring, but homemade technology has seldom been incorporated into these projects.

All of these trends in air monitoring have their benefits. But the buckets have singular advantages. They are hands-on and highly visible. Their results are easily linked to concrete demands for change. They let people take action in the moments when they may feel the most powerless. They remain an important part of the community monitoring toolkit.

While buckets are still important, the infrastructure for supporting communities in building, deploying, and organizing around them is eroding. The organization Global Community Monitor was a hub for bucket-related resources and expertise, as well as the institutional memory of the bucket brigade movement. Its dissolution in 2016 left a hole that can only partially be filled by regional organizations.

We want to make sure that environmental justice communities continue to have the ability to measure toxic chemicals (as well as particulate matter). With support from the 11th Hour Project, we've launched a project to update and open-source the plans for buckets, to identify best practices for incorporating them into community campaigns, and to create a blueprint for an infrastructure to offer support and mentorship to people who want to use buckets.

We extend deep appreciation to groups such as Global Community Monitor, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Communities for a Better Environment, and the self-organizing and regional bucket brigades around the world, for decades of work building buckets, refining their design, and developing a model for integrating buckets into organizing. We will be building on their work within the infrastructure of Public Lab. That will mean using wiki-based collaborative editing, individual research notes, a question and answer system, and activities, to comprehensively document the bucket tool, the ways in which it can be used, and steps for getting people started. We'll also leverage the social network of Public Lab, which links technologists, scientists, educators, and organizers together to integrate tools like this into strong, collaborative systems that support the efforts of communities impacted by industry.

Through the end of 2020, you can expect to see:

  1. An updated and digitized bucket manual: We will be creating a version of the bucket manual that can be easily accessed online, as well as a run of hard copies for distribution. The updated manual will include information and illustrations on building the sampling tool.
  2. An open-source bucket design and availability of bucket parts: We will be creating a series of activities and notes that describe both the technical setup and steps for how you can use the bucket to support action-based outcomes.
  3. A blueprint for infrastructure supporting a distributed community of trainers: We will identify the landscape of bucket brigades and suggest a framing for a distributed support network. Part of this process will include identifying potential lab partners willing to do air sample analysis of bucket samples.

We encourage everyone to follow along and get involved by subscribing to the "bucket-monitor" tag on Public Lab.

Read more Follow

air-quality blog bucket-brigade oil-and-gas

Announcing MapKnitter 3.0

by warren | almost 3 years ago | 1 | 8

Over the past year we’ve been working hard on a new system for exporting maps in MapKnitter, and have been beta testing the new “Cloud Exporter” for the past several weeks.

Today we’re shutting down the old exporting system as a part of the full launch of MapKnitter 3.0, and I wanted to offer a little background on this transition.


What is exporting in MapKnitter? Basically, when you upload a bunch of aerial photos -- from a balloon mapping trip, for example -- you have just a collection of images on a map. It’s interactive, and it’s great for viewing online, but there are a variety of reasons you might want to download a single, high resolution combined image of your entire map:

  • to print it out
  • to use it in a GIS program
  • to archive it
  • to email it or embed it in a PDF

Folks have been used to being able to download a copy of their map in this way, in JPG, GeoTIFF, or even TMS format. But it hasn’t been easy!

This exporting process can often take HOURS, because it involves processing GIGANTIC images -- it’s not unusual to see a 20,000x20,000 pixel image result from a big map! This was all running on our server, and any time you’ve seen slowness on, it’s likely that the website was in the middle of a major export. It’s not a great way to run a website, and it was pretty expensive as well.

Cloud exporting

What we’ve done is to create a cloud-based exporting service that’s completely separate from, and to which we submit jobs, almost like a printer. That means there is no effect on the website speed, and theoretically, you can submit as many jobs as you like, and our system can scale up to handle them. It’s still not free, so please go easy (or consider donating to support our work!) -- but it is pay-as-you-go, so we’re not always paying for a massive server to be online all the time in case someone runs an export. We also incorporated a lot of other improvements. So, what’s changed?

What are the differences?

  • New: each export is now archived in a list, rather than overwriting previous exports
  • New: you must select images in order to export, so you can export different parts of your map individually
  • New: exports run only on selected images, not all images
  • New: where to find the “start export” button (it appears in the upper left once you’ve selected images)
  • New: you can run multiple exports at the same time

What is the same?

  • Same: all previous formats are still exported: JPG, GeoTIFF, TMS, ZIP
  • Same: closing the page will not stop the export
  • Same: privacy (or lack thereof) in anonymous maps was not altered in this release

This release coincides with a LOT of other changes across the entire website, many of which came out of last summer’s Google Summer of Code program, and the Google Community Atlas grant we received in 2018-19. These include:

And literally thousands of other changes and refinements, many “under the hood” that you may never notice, but which have been critical to updating the MapKnitter codebase to 2020 and ensuring it is maintainable, sustainable, and reliable for years to come.

Thanks to EVERYONE who helped to make this happen!

You can read more about the exporter on this page:

Read more Follow

balloon-mapping kite-mapping mapknitter software

Celebrating our tenth anniversary

by joyofsoy | almost 3 years ago | 0 | 0

Learn more about the joint statement from Gulf South and national organizations about the tenth anniversary of the BP oil disaster.

In the first weeks after the BP oil disaster — what would become the largest oil spill in U.S. history — concerned residents came together with weather balloons, rigged with digital cameras, to document the extent of the damage to the beaches and wetlands, fisheries and wildlife. Photos and the resulting maps we created with our “community satellites” showed the damage and the scale of the disaster, and would go on to be shared with media around the world.

In the wake of the spill, we began to question how we could use this success as a model to help redistribute power, by making science something that anyone could access — where people with different forms of expertise are recognized for the value of lived experience and local know-how. We envisioned a network in which people down the block or on the other side of the world could work together on solutions, learning from each other’s experiences. It was through these ideals that Public Lab and our community science movement were born.

We're committed to building a healthier and more equitable world, and we're proud of the work we've accomplished in the past decade with our diverse network of partners and friends around the globe. Throughout the year, we'll be sharing stories from some of these community members on this special anniversary page — a look back at the work we've done together, and a look forward to the many tasks ahead. We encourage you to share your own Public Lab memories with us on social media using the hashtag #PL10.

To support and recognize the incredible work that has been accomplished by the community, please consider making a monthly gift of $10. Your contribution will support the infrastructure, partnerships, and movement building that make community science a valuable tool for those most impacted by environmental pollution.

image description Thank you to Yutsi for commemorative artwork celebrating Public Lab's anniversary. Check out more on their Twitter and Instagram.

Read more Follow

blog anniversary pl10

A note on my departure

by Shannon | almost 3 years ago | 1 | 3

Dear friends,

As Public Lab enters our tenth year, I will be leaving my role as Executive Director to pursue my own next steps, with the goal of making room for new leadership and growth amongst our dynamic nonprofit team. I have high hopes for how Public Lab will transition into our second decade, bringing new ideas and opportunities for the community.

Transitioning out at this moment, with the uncertainty of COVID-19 around us, is not easy, but I'm happy to share that during the transition period, Stevie Lewis, our senior program director who has been a core member of our staff for the last six years, will be acting as interim executive director. Through December 2020, I will be staying on as an organization advisor to support Public Lab through the transition period. The hiring committee to fill my position is being led by board member Mike Ma, and we expect to have identified a new executive director by fall 2020.

Looking back to April 2010, I'll never forget the initial moments of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the collaborative spirit in which we all came together to figure out solutions to document the impact. It is this spirit that has driven our collective work and led to some of the greatest collaborations I've ever experienced. In those ten years, we saw the possibility to employ technological infrastructure, scaling the ability of people to collaborate on environmental problems with others in ways that hadn't been done before. I experienced collaborations with hundreds of people around the world working on addressing topics such as mining, oil extraction, water quality, and wetland health. I also witnessed the growth of the community science movement, which has amplified the ability for people to use science to advocate on behalf of the places they care about. Over the past decade, our nonprofit budget has grown from several thousand dollars to over one million, supporting the infrastructure, staff, and partnerships that make our collective work possible. All of this happened because of the community, and I'm grateful to you all for working to create our reality.

I am departing my position (but not the community!) with Public Lab at a point where we've never been stronger, and for this I'm truly happy. With a clearly articulated vision and strategy, incredible staff, a strong community, and a supportive board of directors, I know we're well set-up to take Public Lab into the next ten years. The Executive Director position will be posted in the next several weeks. If you or someone you know has the passion, dedication, and experience to take Public Lab into the next decade, we'd love to hear from you. More on this soon.

For now, it's been a pleasure to serve this community. I'm thankful for the amazing journey we've gone on together, and the opportunity to learn and grow with all of you! I'm here for the movement we've built, our collective drive to see a healthier future, and looking forward to watching Public Lab, our partners, and collaborators thrive and grow.

P.S. It's April 2020 and that means it's Public Lab's 10th anniversary! Please consider supporting our work as we celebrate a decade and look forward to the future.

Read more Follow


COVID-19: Tips for working remotely

by Shannon with joyofsoy , liz , mimiss , stevie | about 3 years ago | 2 | 3

For ten years, the Public Lab staff and community have collaborated and worked remotely to support each other in solving environmental questions. There are lots of resources being shared on remote work culture and communication, so we've put together a quick list of articles from colleagues and suggestions from our own team.

Virtual Presence at Work

General Team Communication

  • The Public Lab nonprofit staff have a Slack channel just for #morninghello where we talk about what we're focused on for the day. We also like to say see ya later at the end of the day before heading out.
  • Our code community has a chat where all are welcome!
  • To keep timely information flowing about COVID-19, we've designated a specific Slack channel for this to share relevant resources and keep staff up to date.

Online event formats offered by Public Lab

Public Lab has several virtual event formats that we use throughout the year. Next Tuesday, March 24 at 3 pm ET, we'll use our Open Call to field questions and discuss formats for virtual events and gatherings.

You can also find more information about each format at:

OpenHour: Once per month virtual interactive seminar with a topical focus scheduled in advance. It's a public event, but we also invite people who are connected with the topic to share with those who are attending. We rotate the time of the event each month to account for those in different time zones. Each OpenHour is also recorded and archived here.

OpenCalls: Every Tuesday we host a 15-minute "newcomer" call starting at 2:45 ET to help orient new people to Public Lab. Immediately following, we begin our OpenCall at 3 ET. Although the call is hosted by a facilitator, there is usually no set agenda. This is so that people can come to discuss current projects and challenges. To handle the volume of individual or staff requests we get, we also direct people to use this time to connect with our team.

Live Builds: We've used this format several times in the past, most recently in fall 2019, to live broadcast DIY science kit build sessions. It's a great format to try out with students or youth groups as an alternative to in-person work. With our recent switch to all virtual work, Public Lab will be scheduling live builds in the near future. Keep your eyes out for additional information!


There are numerous groups organizing remotely. Here are a few places to find strategies, ideas, and projects to get involved in.

Coronavirus Tech Handbook: A crowdsourced resource for technologists building things related to the coronavirus outbreak. Data, infographics, tools, resources, papers, etc, as well as a section for best practices around remote working and event alternatives.

Open Source COVID-19: A collection of active open source projects during COVID-19.

CrisisMappers Slack: Join the Crisis Mappers group on Slack where they are discussing approaches to addressing COVID-19.

Principles for an Equitable and Effective Crisis Response: From 2018 Crisis Convening and Public Lab Barnraising participants, check out these principals and contribute your thoughts and suggestions.

Model for mutual aid networks: This is an NYC-specific example that could be implemented in your own neighborhood.

Project Open Air: Slack organizing for engineers (and others) working on medical devices to be reproduced and assembled worldwide.

Read more Follow

blog with:stevie with:liz with:joyofsoy