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What makes a good activity?

by warren | over 3 years ago | 13 | 4

In our continuing shift towards using the new Q&A feature and the new Activity grids as a framework for collaboration on, we're encouraging people to post their work more in the spirit of -- "showing each other how to do something" rather than just telling people about something you've done. This shifts the emphasis from solely documenting what you've done, to helping others do it too. (image above from a Lego Technics kit)

There are several reasons we like this. A how-to guide (what we're calling Activities) must have extremely thorough and easy-to-follow steps (and may need to be revised if people get stuck). Perhaps even more importantly, its success (we hope) can be measured by how many people are able to follow the steps successfully, which exercises and fuels the power of broad communities and open science.

What's needed?

While there are various types of activities for various purposes, all of them ought to set out some basic information to help people get started:

  • a description of the purpose of the activity
  • a list of materials needed
  • a clear description of your conditions (e.g. lighting, temperature, or other relevant factors)
  • a detailed sequence of steps to follow
  • a description of how to confirm you've followed the steps correctly
  • a hypothesis or expected outcome
  • a discussion of your results
  • a list of questions to explore next (unknowns, or followup activities)
  • a request for input (there's always room for improvement!)

Speaking of room for improvement, can folks suggest other important parts of an activity? With an eye toward making it easy for anyone to write and post activities, and for others to replicate them, what's the minimum necessary?

image description

(IKEA Stonehenge. Justin Pollard, John Lloyd, and Stevyn Colgan designed an IKEA manual for Stonehenge, publishing it under the title HËNJ in the QI 'H' Annual)

Drafts welcome

We'd also like to suggest that people post things early -- to share ideas, solicit input, and acknowledge that most posted activities will go through some (if not many) revisions as people try them out and offer feedback. Could we even have a separate "Publish Draft" button so they're clearly marked as such, and people know they're encouraged to share early and often?

Break it up!

One important way we think will increase the chances that people will complete a replication of your activity is to simply write shorter activities -- perhaps breaking up a longer set of steps into several related modules. Instead of posting a long and complex activity, a few shorter ones -- each with a simple way to verify that the steps so far were correctly completed -- are much more accessible, and will tend to separate distinct possible causes of failure for easier troubleshooting.

Distinct modular activities can be linked and referenced to create a larger activity that might span, for example, building and verifying a tool functions properly, tool calibration, and lab or field tests of various materials using the tool. Even if the final activity cannot be completed without the previous activities first, breaking them out into distinct activities that build on each other will help the onboarding process.

image description (above, @cfastie shows how to swap a lens in a #mobius camera)

Supporting activity authors

Finally, beyond this overview, what more can we do to make it easy to write good activities? Some have suggested a kind of "assistance group" who could provide helpful tips and constructive critique to people posting on Public Lab. This sounds like a great idea, and potentially extra helpful to folks who are hesitant or unsure of what makes a good and thorough post.

Would "activity templates" be useful, to the extent that they can be generalized?

We're also, of course, posting some example Activities, such as this spectrometer calibration activity, which we hope will help set some conventions.

Next steps

We're also interested in how people could be introduced to other activities on a topic once they complete the current one -- maybe there's a "sequence" of activities that grow in complexity? Or we could display a mini activity grid of "related activities" at the bottom of each one?

Finally, we're trying to figure out how people can request an activity for something they want to learn to do, but for which there is not yet an activity posted. This'll be especially important as we're starting out, since we have very few complete activities posted -- but it'll also be a great starting place for people hoping to share their knowledge and expertise. Our initial stab at this is to list "limitations and goals" for a given kit, clearly explaining the problem we'd like to solve. This is actually a list of questions using our new questions system -- and we imagine people might post an activity, then link to it as a proposed answer.

We need your input!

This is all quite new, and we'd love to hear other ideas for how this could work. And of course, if you're interested in giving it a try and writing an Activity, please do! Activity grids are going up on many wiki pages across the site, so if you have questions about where and how to post, please leave them in the comments below. Thanks!

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Q&A enables automated FAQ

by liz | over 3 years ago | 0 | 1

Asking and answering questions is at the very heart of Public Lab. It's how we get started, it's how we make progress, it's how we get to know each other and our environmental concerns. Dedicated readers will recognize that some "getting started" exchanges have been repeated countless times on the mailing lists. (PS To those of you who are high volume question answerers -- everyone is endlessly grateful for your responses!) While it's critical that that questions from newcomers, however repetitive, will always be welcome, generating a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) grid will lower the barrier to exchanging information.

There are two parts to the new automated FAQ system:

1) The new Question and Answer system that @Ananyo2012 built into the plots2 codebase this summer is up and running.
See it here: And read more about it here:


2) The FAQ Grid is a variation of the Activity Grid insofar as it's also generated by a powertag, and sorted by Likes.

FAQs will be on every "top-level" research page, see it here


You can add an automated FAQ grid to any wiki page by using this code:

the title:
## Frequently Asked Questions

the button where people can ask a new question:

<a class="btn btn-primary" href="/post?tags=question:spectrometry&template=question">Ask a question about spectrometry</a>

the grid itself:



As @mathew reported back from Write The Docs, pruning an automated system of FAQs is superior to curating a manual one. Further, linking product support directly to documentation is so important that the Kits Initiative will move their knowledge base onto the Q&A, and will interact with customers using Q&A.

Early adopters on method specific mailing lists might consider subscribing to the relavant question:foo tag on the website. (pssst this is the start of a medium term plan to move all mailing list interactions onto the website). For instance, spectrometry list members might want to subscribe here:


Please write in with ideas and new suggestions! What do you think?

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Check out these Activity Grids

by liz | over 3 years ago | 8 | 8

The sheer number of posts on by contributors from all over the world about 1) how to build tools better, and 2) how to use them for making environmental observations is breathtaking, and at times, boggling. As Public Lab has grown, so much content has been generated that it has become unnecessarily difficult to know what the "latest and greatest" version is, what the next development challenges are, or simply where newcomers should begin.

In the past couple weeks, staff have begun "gardening" on and writing some new web features.

Organizing research areas

People on the spectroscopy and near-infrared lists have been discussing how to better present the overall research areas to make it easier to get involved. For each of those two research areas, we made a new top-level page. See them at spectrometry and multispectral-imaging. On those new pages, we constructed a couple tables -- the main table organizes relevant research notes into a "ladder" of activities others can replicate. There are columns to describe what type of activity it is, the status of its documentation, and how many people have replicated it.


We made a "Request A Guide" button to capture ideas about what people would like to do but don't see listed yet:


We also drafted two other kinds of tables, one to track upgrades (additions, modifications) that people have made to particular tools (for instance, the desktop spectrometer):


...and another to hold questions related to a particular research area (for instance, spectrometry):


Check out this much easier, automated way to organize content into grids:

After creating the first grids manually, WebWorkingGroup quickly created an automated way to make the grids. We created a power tag to add an Activity Grid to your wiki page with just a few characters, like this: [activities:spectrometry]:


This automated Activity Grid fills itself in with all research notes tagged with the key word you used. Consider the keyword "spectrometry": a grid on a wiki page created with the powertag [activities:spectrometry] will pull in all content (notes/questions) tagged with the powertag activity:spectrometry. Check it out on, look at the tables, then click "edit" to see how the tables were generated. The tables have various columns, such as "difficulty" (like easy, moderate, or hard), which can be filled out by adding more tags on the research notes. We're working on a tagging interface to make tagging less mysterious:


Help kick the tires!

These draft "Activity Grids" are ready for you to test drive! How?

  • Browse the activity grids and try out someone's activity. Responding via the button "Post your attempt to replicate this activity" will count your work as a "replication" on both the original note and in the grid.


  • If you've previously posted an activity on, read through it and see what you could add/edit to make it easier for someone else to follow, then tag it so it will appear in the relevant Activity Grid.
  • Want to organize a content on a new (or existing) wiki page? add one or more of these power tags...


...and to pipe content into the grid, go back to your original notes and add the powertag activity:spectrometry. To fill out the columns for each activity, use the tagging interface to add additional powertags or directly type: seeks:replications difficulty:easy time:30m


If you want any assistance, email and we'll help you get it going!

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Wrapping up Google Summer of Code 2016!

by warren | over 3 years ago | 2 | 6

We've had some tremendous work on Public Lab software this past summer through our Google-supported Google Summer of Code program, where five students and several mentors have spent innumerable hours cooking up new features and abilities both on the PublicLab website and in the independent #webjack project.

Even just in the past month, we've seen (via Github Pulse):

Excluding merges, 9 authors have pushed 368 commits to master. 321 files have changed and there have been 7,047 additions and 1,217 deletions.

The program wraps up this week with many of the features having gone live over the past few weeks. Our five students have written up their work in a series of notes, which I'll link to here:

Thanks to all of our mentors for their ongoing input and support, with special thanks to the Community Development team, @liz and @stevie. I'd also like to shout out to @david-days, as well, who put an enormous amount of work into the Advanced Search project, and in particular, whose work was just merged for the first time last week in an epic rebase of hundreds of files and thousands of lines of code.

These projects, from including more languages on to making it easier to find people and resources near you, all have helped to make Public Lab's collaborative model stronger, and we're eager to see how the new features promote the growth of our community.

Fast paced work

All of our students this year were extremely productive, and we had our best-ever GSoC program, beyond all doubt. The fast pace of merging (twice weekly) was exciting and really ensured that student work tracked the master branch closely, and that new changes (with corresponding tests) were quickly and consistently integrated into production code instead of drifting off and resulting in larger, more difficult merges later. Thanks to all of our students for keeping up with this fast pace (and occasionally going faster than I could!). It was great to have students who knew how to do pull requests, write and run tests, and rebase their changes to make things efficient, so we could focus on doing great work.

Welcoming new contributors

One of the things which really made the difference this year was the way our #new-contributors work helped to ease students' entrance into the codebase, and we've asked the students to, in turn, produce some `help-wanted` and `first-timers-only` issues to draw yet more contributors into the project:

Amazingly, this has worked very well, and two new contributors (carolineh101 and ykl7) have committed code in the past two weeks, directly resulting from these outreach efforts. With so many well-documented and welcoming issues, we hope this is just the beginning. See the screenshot below for just a portion of our first-timers-only posts!

So, all in all, a fantastic summer, and thanks to all who helped out!


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Introducing the Environmental Evidence Project, a blog series from Public Lab

by warren | over 3 years ago | 5 | 7

Hello everyone -- Jeff Warren and Gretchen Gehrke here, Public Lab's Research Director and Data Quality and Advocacy Manager, respectively. Over the next few months, we're hoping to share a series of posts covering different aspects of the concept of evidence. What is it evidence, what factors contribute to the importance of evidence, and how does all that relate to environment sensing?

(Lead image: a tar ball, photo by @eustatic)

We spend a lot of time thinking about different kinds of data and how to collect it. Well, imagine you've got some data. How does it compare to other kinds of data? How's it been used for action? How was it analyzed, stored, sent, presented?

We have a lot of questions and we'll be talking to a number of different people, from environmental lawyers to formal scientists, regulators and activists who've gone through this and have experience with the ins and outs of evidence. We're also looking to co-author blog posts and research notes with other individuals or groups, so if you're interested, please reach out! (

You'll be able to follow this series under the tag #evidence-project, and you can sign up to get notifications here.


Suspected oil samples, kept in a cooler; photo by Scott Eustis (@eustatic)

In particular, we're going to look at some specific types of data we're interested in, related to the use of photography as evidence: for example, timelapses of turbidity events in water, or photographs of microscopic silica. We want to research how such data has been used in the past, but also document and discuss best practices for storing, transporting, and presenting it, with an eye toward environmental outcomes.


Broadly, we're thinking of doing posts on some of the following topics:

  • possible outcomes, esp. legal ones: civil suit, regulation, enforcement, criminal suit, cleanup, publicity-driven withdrawal
  • legal basics: how evidence is entered, challenged, presented, and terms like deposition, discovery, and authentication
  • permitting under the Clean Water Act
  • the pathway from collection to outcomes


Before we kick this off, we'd like to share some of the questions that have motivated us, and ask you to chip in with your own questions -- and resources! We've already had a great opportunity to chat with Chris Nidel, who participated in an OpenHour on "proof" a few months ago, and we're eager to talk with a broad range of folks. In the comments, please list out some of the things you want to know about how environmental data can become evidence, and if possible, share a bit of background to help situate your questions.

  • Why do we hear different things from different folks on certification of methods? Some have said that they don't use data that's not collected using an EPA certified method and produced by an accredited lab, while others have indicated they'd use community collected data.
  • Is there a precedent, or best practices, from the use of security camera footage as evidence -- storage, authentication, presentation?
  • What about timelapse photography, for example, to monitor activities at an industrial site?
  • When is EPA certification NOT absolutely required? Can this be jurisdiction or law/regulation dependent?
  • What about challenging evidence from a report under a Clean Water or Clean Air Act permit?
  • What's the limit of photographic data -- has it been used for Secci disks, photos of smoke, turbidity or plumes?

These are just a few of our many questions, but please add your own below!


We'll also be adding some of our questions into the new Q&A system which was recently added to this site. As people add questions on the topic of evidence, they'll appear here:

Ask a question  or help answer future questions on this topic

Ask a question about evidence

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Regional Barnraising 2016: A Few Thoughts About Public Lab's Work

by sarasage | over 3 years ago | 2 | 5

Greetings From Val Verde:

It has been a month since Public Lab has left Val Verde, and a month since a very intensive Barnraising in which we literally met in a barn with incredibly interesting, creative and dedicated people. Sharing the event with the greater Public Lab community was foremost in our minds, until we got distracted with recent events – apologies for the late report.

Before I start, and because I plan to share this with my community, I want to answer the question that a lot of neighbors asked me: What is Public Lab and what do they do?

Okay, so. Public Lab is a lot of things: they focus on low-cost approaches to fill data deficits; they provide a crucial platform for interested parties and stakeholders to share ideas; they communicate with communities and help to uncover and research areas of human health and industry that are not being addressed. They help to provide tools and support to enable researchers to map the world's urban population who live in unauthorized settlements, for instance.

But what is Public Lab really do -- Without all of the language -- What do they do? In my opinion, I believe that Public Lab’s mission, the most important thing that they do, is spread this gospel:

The most efficient way to solve a problem is to communicate.

As a newcomer to the Public Lab community, Public Lab truly is an altruistic group of people who have a method and way of organization that works to solve problems. The regional barnraising event is another tool for Public Lab to share their innovative approach with other regions. We were very fortunate to have been able to host the event and want to thank Public Lab for the opportunity to be influenced by PL's way of thinking.


Public Lab does something different in that they do not place primary value on the outcome, but rather the work and the process. This is a refreshing point of view when you are locked in a battle as my community is with a local polluter. The focus is always the outcome.

If I can be allowed to be sentimental, since the Olympics are underway, successful athletes think this way. They focus on process, the moment and also employ innovation in finding ways to make their hard work take them further.

On a less local level, if each of us learns to communicate and collaborate with others to solve very real, pressing, human issues – such as biodegradability of ocean plastics – we have a chance to make change that we desire and leave the world not only in a better place. We can also leave the world a better place not only because pollution has decreased, we can leave the world a better place because we have learned to communicate and value each other -- a foundation for global peace and understanding.

Enough of that.

(Stay tuned for more pictures and events from the July Regional Barnraising in Val Verde).

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