Shannon Dosemagen is the co-founder and Executive Director of Public Lab. She is building the field of community-based science, and in doing so, bringing an ethos of hands-on, do-it-yourself, exploration and monitoring to the environmental justice movement.
The New Idea
Communities facing environmental hazards crave access to the tools and techniques needed to participate in decisions being made about their communities. But science has been professionalized to the point that the public cannot easily access it. Self-regulation by corporations proliferates and the tools and techniques to monitor the environment are highly technical and prohibitively expensive.
Shannon Dosemagen, co-founder and director of the Public Lab nonprofit, believes that communities negatively impacted by industry and environmental degradation should be able to interface with the entities necessary to create change. By using inexpensive do-it-yourself techniques and opportunistically repurposed materials, Public Lab community members create low cost solutions for monitoring air, water, and land. Public Lab organizers work with more than fifty local organizations and thousands of individuals around the U.S. (and beyond) to create healthier environments as a result of tools they build, data that is collected, and actions they take.
By bringing an ethos of hands-on, do-it-yourself, grassroots organizing to the fields of environmental monitoring and environmental justice, Public Lab is effectively leading the field of “community-based science”. Beyond helping collaborators design and build tools, collect data and organize, the Public Lab team works to ensure data collected by community scientists is legible (and often highly visual), legally admissible, and widely-available online and as part of public databases maintained by Google Earth and others. Even regulatory agencies have recognized the competitive precision of community-generated data compared to traditional, prohibitively expensive, and centrally-controlled collection processes. Through these efforts the equilibrium is shifting as more engaged community-based scientists bring new insights, power, and possibility to the environmental justice movement.
The environmental impact of industry is not evenly distributed across the United States. Pollution-creating industries are centered disproportionately in disadvantaged communities where people have historically lacked the means and power to defend themselves and their environments. These communities are at the mercy of pollution producing plants and extractive industries that set up in their backyards and who, in many cases, are careless with their effect on local human and environmental health.
Public agencies have historically been endowed with the responsibility of protecting people – especially the disenfranchised – from abuse and exploitation. But the U.S. federal government is actually weakening existing environmental regulation and decreasing funding for various protection agencies. (As part of the $1.1 trillion 2014 spending bill, the U.S. Senate reduced the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency to the lowest level since 1989.) Though laws exist to provide protection from industrial pollution and hold polluters accountable, there is often lax enforcement and, in the worst cases, outright corruption. Many laws even allow for companies to do their own reporting. In an enforcement and regulatory landscape such as this, industries have free reign to continue profiting from practices that harm people and the environment.
Communities that are impacted should be able to interface with the entities necessary to create change, but most attempts by low-income neighborhoods, rural residents, people of color, and other marginalized groups to take on industries suspected of perpetrating environmental crimes have been unsuccessful. The tools required to document what is going on around them, to make a compelling case, or to commence legal proceedings are inaccessible to most. Today’s technology and tests required to measure air, water, and land pollution are prohibitively expensive and highly technical as they have historically been designed for industry, academic, or government uses. Even science has been professionalized to the point that the public cannot easily access it.
Five years after the deadliest storm in U.S. history – Hurricane Katrina – exposed the ineptitude of the state and federal government in New Orleans, the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill again put the city in the national spotlight. For locals “the BP spill was a big exclamation point on a long sentence.” In the way that Katrina exposed the systemic problems in New Orleans, local people hoped that the environmental injustices now on display would inspire a national response. Instead, BP launched a concerted effort to ratchet down images of affected wildlife and oiled marshes. They were even able to impose a Coast Guard-enforced Temporary Flight Restriction; no flights under 3,000 feet meant no photographic evidence of the widespread damage caused by oil slicks and tar balls reaching the shore. People on the ground were seeing the destruction all around them as well as the disconnect between that and the TV images and official information they were receiving.
Shannon and colleagues at local environmental justice organizations worked with other would be co-founders of Public Lab from Massachusetts and California and hatched a plan to use helium balloons, kites, and inexpensive digital cameras to loft their own "community satellites" over the spill to document and share what was really happening. In the days and weeks that followed, more than 100,000 images were collected by citizens of the Gulf Coast, stitched together into aerial maps using open source technology of the team’s design, and picked up by media outlets from the New York Times and the Boston Globe to BBC and PBS. Just when Shannon and her collaborators thought that the media moment and their community’s power was slipping away, their balloon mapping innovation engaged, emboldened, and empowered them. This realization – that “do-it-yourself” tools and community-collected data can help disenfranchised people tell their own stories and play a meaningful role in decision making process – became the foundation of Public Lab.
Today, Public Lab is a global community of people who come together to investigate environmental concerns. The Public Lab community is a group of people with diverse backgrounds and interests. Many are people who have not engaged with social or environmental issues before finding something concerning happening in their community. Some are researchers who come to Public Lab thinking that there are useful tools that they could try out, but find themselves instead becoming embedded in a community-change effort. And some are already action-taking community members engaged in environmental justice work in their environmentally degraded communities. Some arrive curious, others furious after years of frustrated efforts to interface with industry and authority. As a convener, Public Lab sees its role as helping people figure out how to translate their interests and experiences into tools and strategies that can create change for the communities that they care about.
Through its online presence and offline community, Public Lab has created pathways to participation that are easy to navigate, where community members feel ownership but also openly share what they are learning, and where expertise in its many forms is valued. The Public Lab organization – a registered 501(c)3 with a team of 12 staff and annual operating expenses of $880,000 (FY2015 projections) – provides support and structure to the movement. The Public Lab staff coordinates a robust calendar of engagements including weekly calls with community members and various working groups, ongoing support and trainings to organizers and members, and an annual calendar of “Barnraisings” where the wider community comes together to develop tools, toolkits, guides and tutorials, and new research strategies and projects. The Annual Barnraising is held in Louisiana in the fall of each year. Regional Barnrasings take place throughout the U.S. every spring. Local Public Lab chapters host “Toolshed Raisings” throughout the year to develop new tools or refine topical research or advocacy strategies. An online calendar of all the weekly calls and various “raisings” is constantly updated; all events and calls – including “Open Hour” calls on issues of community members’ choosing – are open to the public. As Shannon puts it, the organizational structure and convenings are designed to create “an open space where people come together in a model that is at the heart of community science -- where expertise is recognized in each of its unique forms, whether academic in nature or embedded in the local knowledge of a particular place.”
The approach that Public Lab takes is focused on community and movement building, not on creating an isolated technology-centered project. When people develop and create tools using materials and techniques that are accessible to them, they not only demystify technology and better understand how these tools work as data collection devices, but they ensure that the open, replicable, low–cost tools they create stay at a price point that community groups can afford. A balloon-mapping kit costs less than $100 and captures images with 2cm pixel resolution, 10 times more detailed that Google Earth images; a total of three were used to document more than 100 miles of coastline after the BP spill. Compare this to a “low-cost” $1,200 drone with GPS and camera. Public Lab spectrometer kits start at $10 compared to $900 commercial options; Public Lab Infragram kits cost from $10-$135 compared to off-the-shelf infrared photography options from $300-$1,000+. According to Shannon, “the development of open, replicable, low cost tools for people to do their own monitoring helps us to imagine a future where pollution-sensing devices for checking your own air or water quality are as common as household smoke detectors.”
All the tools’ specs, designs, and instructions are freely available on PublicLab.org and all parts can be sourced at an average hardware store. But for more than 20 tools – from balloon mapping kits to DIY spectrometers – kits are available for purchase online. Assembly is absolutely required to maintain the DIY ethos and “dissolve the black box approach inherent with proprietary, technical designs”. Shannon projects that sales of the kits will bring in $292,000 in revenue in the current fiscal year. (Last year’s revenue from the same was $223,664.)
To date, Public Lab has more than 50 partner organizations and more than 5,000 members have uploaded maps, new tool designs, organizing tips, and data sets to the online platform. And as proof that this approach is gaining traction, local community groups across the country are more effectively engaging with their environments and local authorities. Organizations like the Gulf Restoration Network in Louisiana and Dredge Research Collaborative in New York have repeatedly used Public Lab’s aerial mapping tools to advocate for wetlands and habitat restoration projects and to keep community and partner organizations abreast of progress (or lack thereof). Public Lab members at UMass Amherst, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and Pioneer Valley Open Science use the DIY multispectral aerial photography and balloon mapping kits to monitor invasive aquatic plants and their removal. And through vigilant aerial surveying and analysis, Public Labbers working with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy in New York identified four active pipes and inflows that the EPA’s survey of the polluted canal had missed; through collaboration with regulators, they amended and improved the area’s Superfund clean-up plan.
Some Public Labbers are even making headway in documenting and turning back the tide of environmental degradation. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, Public Lab organizers used images collected via kite mapping to challenge the lack of a permit for new construction of a waste storage facility at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. In East Providence, Rhode Island, a large construction waste-grinding business that was spreading toxic dust into nearby homes was caught illegally grinding scrap metal while operating with a permit that allows only for processing wood products. And the Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club were able to prove that United Bulk’s willful neglect at a rural coal terminal was actively contributing pollution to the Mississippi River; their low-altitude and high-resolution kite photos taken over time and at an oblique angle clearly showed coal runoff in the river under a poorly-maintained conveyor belt. These images moved the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to do a site visit and were the basis of a legal suit filed by GRN and the Sierra Club in 2013. The legal proceedings are still ongoing but aerial monitoring shows that the company is already beginning to clean up their operations.
Shannon sees Public Lab – and, indeed, all Public Labbers – as a bridge between communities and authorities. Around 20% of Public Labbers hail from academia or various research or regulatory agencies. Shannon is particularly happy with the cross fertilization between Public Lab and the EPA. Public Lab regularly participates in EPA monitoring and innovation gatherings, is in communication with various departments and working groups within the EPA, has contributed data and insights for memos, and has received a federal EPA grant ($52,000 in 2014 for urban water assessment and improvement). Shannon is already seeing greater alignment, increased opportunities for “win-win” outcomes, and more collaboration in general. Indeed, NASA, the EPA, and other state-wide regulatory bodies are now admitting that their systems, sensors, and monitoring networks – though state of the art – are not sufficient. At the same time, Public Lab is proving that everyday citizens are creating legible, litigable, and competitively-precise data about environmental issues in their communities using tools that they create and control.
Through these efforts, Public Lab is taking on an even bigger challenge: the tension that exists between people perceived as experts and non-experts, as powerful and powerless. Shannon is encouraged by the emerging field of “citizen science”; the term describing the act of everyday citizens participating in scientific research projects like annual bird counts and amateur astrology projects was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. But the majority of citizen science projects amount to data that isn’t owned or used by the people collecting it. Shannon is on working groups in the Citizen Science Association and is strategically engaged in this space, but through Public Lab is pioneering a different, more cooperative approach they call “Community-based Science”. Shannon insists that only by dissolving science back into communities can real contributions to social change can be made. Less encumbered by formal academic hierarchies or funding mechanisms, community-based science is more closely and authentically aligned with the most important scientific and technological questions we face as a society today.
Shannon’s parents were social workers and instilled in her the importance of thinking of your community first. Her personal history revolves around working class communities in the industrial cities of Milwaukee and New Orleans. Shannon dropped out of two high schools after realizing it wasn’t a setting in which she felt curious, creative, or could learn. Her father helped her enroll in an alternative high school where she was able to complete high schools credits through a year of volunteer work and community service. This school placed Shannon at the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, then just a trailer in a public park. She quickly found her footing – and her calling. The program she started working on – a freshwater ecology course for inner city kids that involved kayaking, plant identification, and rock climbing – is still offered some 15 years later and the Center has risen to prominence in the urban ecology world.
For Shannon the experience was eye-opening. The lack of ecosystem awareness she saw around her growing up was degrading the natural spaces she took her students. The questions this raised about the source of the pollution and deeper social inequities fueled a decade of community work and deeper inquiry. In her late teens and twenties, Shannon created and ran a community center for youth called Urban Patrons Reclaiming our Culture, helped re-brand and launch a Milwaukee freshwater, science and technology museum, developed a full range of adolescent programming at this institution, was involved in numerous community and media initiatives, and – in the balance of her time – accumulated a BA, a Masters degree and two Masters certificates. “As I taught environmental education in informal settings, I noticed that the layers and hierarchy of expertise in science were stifling and exclusionary, rather than helpful in creating a public involved and engaged in their local environments.” For Shannon, Public Lab is a culmination of all this work and her best strategy to put science back in the hands of amateurs and power in the hands of communities most affected by environmental degradation.