stories from the Public Lab community
As 2019 draws to a close and Public Lab looks ahead to celebrating our tenth anniversary in 2020, please consider making a donation that will help sustain the Public Lab nonprofit through the coming year. Here’s a few ways to show your support:
▪ Make an individual one-time or recurring donation here.
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▪ This holiday season, join me in supporting Public Lab and its mission to educate and empower a new generation of scientists and advocates! https://publiclab.org/donate
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Choose one of the photos at the bottom of the page to get started. Instagram doesn't allow clickable links, so consider adding the links to your Instagram profile so others can navigate there more easily. Don’t forget to tag us in your photo or story!
▪ Join me in donating a @PublicLab #DIY science kit to people and organizations that can't always afford them. Together, we'll help more people learn, collaborate, and explore the world around them! https://store.publiclab.org/products/donate-a-kit
Sending a personal email to your friends, family, and colleagues is a great way to share why Public Lab's work is so meaningful to you. Create your own personal message, or use this message to get started:
In 2019, we’ve all been inspired by the young people taking a lead on climate action, and demanding a response from policy makers. To keep the momentum going, we have to make sure people are equipped with the tools they need to create a more just and equitable world.
That’s why I support Public Lab and its mission to educate and connect a new movement of scientists and advocates, so that all among us have a voice, the tools to collect data, and the power to protect and preserve our communities.
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We live near a large manufacturer in Orangetown, NY called Aluf Plastics which has been emitting noxious odors into our community for many years. The facility processes plastic materials into plastic bags and also recycles polyethylene. Aluf runs six days a week 24 hours a day. The factory opened with seven extruders and eight bag machines in 1986. The plant now operates 70 blown film lines and is approximately 500,000 square feet. The factory is located a ½ mile or less to a high school, an elementary school, playgrounds, athletic fields, a college and their dorms, several preschools, a walking trail, churches, and many homes. This factory literally sits in the middle of our community.
Over the years, the factory expanded operations significantly without proper oversight and the odors intensified. The noxious odors that are emitted from Aluf have been negatively affecting the community for decades. The odors have been described as "burning/burnt plastic, with and without a floral odor; plastic; floral/ perfume; chemical; choking, potent and noxious." Residents complain of headaches, sore throats, nausea, and dizziness from exposure to the noxious odors. This week, Kelly Turturo, Regional Director, Region 3, New York State, Department of Environmental Conservation, sent a letter to Aluf's lawyer stating that the "odors from the Aluf facility (are) affecting nearby residential areas constituting interference with comfortable enjoyment of life and property."
In 2016, the odors became even more troublesome and our grassroots group, Clean Air for Orangetown (CA4O) was formed, forcing the Town and State to address ongoing odors from Aluf Plastics. Our group has obtained volumes of information on Aluf's history in Orangetown, NY (1986- present) through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We have advocated for air testing and after a lot of advocacy some limited testing took place in 2017. Experts agreed that aldehydes escaping from the factory may be causing the odors. When the officials agreed on what should be tested for and the method that should be used, residents were given the chance to capture the fumes in their backyards by using air canisters. When the results of those tests came back with concerning results, we heard lots of excuses. First we were told not to worry; the levels of carcinogens such as acrolein were not harmful unless you were exposed to them for prolonged periods. When local scientists and doctors expressed their own concerns because our community is living with these odors -- not for hours or even days, but for YEARS -- a long silence ensued. Finally after several months, the government agencies and testing firm responded, saying that there was a problem with the testing method. The results were dismissed; the science was problematic. But residents were never again given the opportunity to test and in fact no further tests were taken during times of extreme odors.
The Town of Orangetown Justice Court recently found Aluf guilty for five separate odor violations in 2018. Aluf has constantly denied being the source of the odor, so a conviction in court is important. However, there have been over 1400 written complaints of odors from the factory since spring, 2016. Clean Air for Orangetown has record of approximately 700 complaints from 2016-2018. Eventually the Town of Orangetown initiated an official online complaint system and there have been over 700 since that system began in 2018. On November 26, 2019, Aluf was fined $75,000 for these odors in Orangetown Justice Court; yet in their closing remarks, the factory still took no responsibility for the odors.
Our group has a lot of information -- and it's too much for us to process ourselves. But none of the information makes us feel that it is safe for our children to be breathing in these noxious fumes day after day, year after year. They breathe these fumes while they are playing at preschool, riding bikes on the rail trail which borders the factory, playing lacrosse, football and running track on the hill near the factory where parents have complained of a field filled with blue haze. Our children breathe this air when they are sleeping in their bedrooms with the windows open as the factory continues manufacturing around the clock.
We have spent nearly four years advocating for clean air and it has only gotten worse. Even though the factory is now being prosecuted for the odors, the smells continue and adversely affect quality of life and enjoyment of property. The health impacts of exposure to these odors are unknown; our children are left covering their faces with their shirts and asking when it will stop smelling. We welcome any help to process the information we have and figure out what else can be done to stop these noxious odors.
Here are some questions we have that we're looking for support with:
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air-quality blog odor oil-and-gas
It is common to hear people describe Rhode Island as a "post-industrial" state. But what does that really mean? Researchers often study deindustrialization by measuring declining levels of manufacturing employment. This is an important measure because it tells us about the level of economic disinvestment the state has experienced. As the graph below indicates, net manufacturing job loss in Rhode Island began around 1980.
RI Manufacturing by Employment
Source: U.S. 2010: Longitudinal Tract Database
We can also measure deindustrialization by counting the opening and closing of manufacturing facilities. This place-based approach emphasizes how deindustrialization changes the built environment and impacts land-use decisions as old factories close and new ones open. Historical evidence from old industrial directories helps us see this process more clearly, providing strong evidence that deindustrialization in Rhode Island was a geographically uneven process.
As the graph below indicates, deindustrialization hit Rhode Island's urban industrial core earliest and hardest. Providence experienced a steep decline in the number of active manufacturing facilities beginning around 1960. Central Falls and Pawtucket also saw steady declines in manufacturing beginning around the same time but at slower rates. In other words, factories were emptying out in these cities two decades before the state as a whole began registering net manufacturing job losses.
It is likely that many of those shuttered businesses relocated to the suburbs. In Cranston, manufacturing facility counts continued to increase into the 1980s. In East Providence and Warwick, the increase continued into the 1990s. Yet by the mid-1990s, manufacturing activities were leaving the suburbs, too. Today, only a few hundred manufacturing establishments are operating in the entire state.
The different patterns of factory closings suggest that deindustrialization is not one process, but many; its effects on communities and the built environment varies from place to place.
RI Manufacturing by Facility Counts
Source: Rhode Island Directory of Manufacturers
The maps below use the same data and provide another view of this shifting geography. The red dots on each map are manufacturing facilities operating in a given year. The white contour lines depict areas of spatial concentration. Together, the six maps provide a series of industrial activity "snapshots" and show us that as manufacturing facilities declined, they also spread out, becoming less concentrated but affecting more of the state.
De-concentration and Diffusion of RI Manufacturing, by Decade
Source: Rhode Island Directory of Manufacturers
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Welcome to the Home-Made Disaster Kit. This kit is a card game designed to help people have conversations about their concerns, anticipated needs, and best use of available resources in planning for environmental disasters.
This game was presented by Emilio Vellis at the Texas Barnraising in the spring of 2019, and Public Lab collaborated with Emilio and members of Reaccion to produce this kit as a deck of cards that could be included in disaster kit and used as a tool to help communities strategize and prepare for their responses to environmental disasters.
This card game will be available for pre-order in the Public Lab store in December, and we anticipate further expansion kits that delve further into strategies for environmental sensing and monitoring.
This game is meant to work with communities at the beginning on the concept of using tools together to make a solution. Playing it takes about 10-15 minutes.
People are divided in groups of 10 max.
The game begins with describing a scenario (e.g. "You're working/sleeping at day/night at home and you hear a banging sound afar. You check the news/check outside and you hear that a gas explosion/earthquake/flooding is happening. Your family is at with you/away/nearby. You check with neighbors and see that someone is trapped/a home is on fire. What would you do?).
People should work together to choose from the tools to form their emergency kit out of household items. There is no limit to how many tools are used.
After working for five minutes, a person from each team explains what the tools will be used for.
After two or three scenarios, discussion is brought on how to use tools and the importance of creating an emergency kit.
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barnraising blog disaster-response activity:disaster-response
With increased focus on location privacy in the wake of last year's New York Times report (Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They're Not Keeping It Secret, image above), we felt this was a good time to talk about some of the systems for storing locations, and some of the work Public Lab has been doing on what we're calling blurred location and a model for variable location privacy. We use both these terms to refer to systems that set out to share or store locations to different degrees of precision.
Clearly there are many reasons for the abuse or misuse of location data. Corporate and government data use must be constrained and responsible. But we are interested in exploring how location data, so useful in coordinating peer-based community strategies, may be used in systems that enable a structural approach to location privacy.
While there is existing work on different aspects of this problem, with the generous support of the Digital Impact Fund, we have set out to implement a prototype system that allows for some location sharing to enable community scientists to coordinate regionally, while not requiring them to share high precision location that might expose them to risk. The keys here are:
Together, we aim for these to articulate a model that is simple to use and understand, as well as universal enough---and powerful enough---to be implemented in real-world web applications.
As adding location for both people and for research sites on the PublicLab.org website became increasingly important for Public Lab's mission, we began looking at how we could store location while offering a means for people to share low-precision (or obfuscated) location. We explored a number of existing options but all had drawbacks, from postal codes, to the "in this area" model used by AirBNB:
One of the biggest problems we saw in general was quick legibility---the ability to know how much precision has been scrubbed, for example, or the ability to perform the "blurring" mentally without an algorithm. Finally, we chose to go with truncation of longitude/latitude values, but to work on a coherent user interface and mental model to guide the translation from different precisions to a meaningful understanding of an "amount" of privacy.
What we sought was a simple mental model, and we based it around the latitude/longitude grid, known as a graticule in cartographic terms. By using a fixed grid, or a series of fixed grids at different decimal precisions, we avoided the need to insert random data, and we ensured the given truncated coordinates could be used to give a rough sense of the amount of precision offered. (Try it out here)
But most people can't quickly recall how big a coordinate grid square is, and so the interface for choosing one had to be intuitive and visual. We settled on a simple interactive web map using Leaflet, a very popular open source web mapping library. As you pan the map, you see the square overlapping the centerpoint of the map highlighted, indicating your current position at the center, and which grid square you "fall" in.
As you zoom the map in and out, you see the grid squares expanding, and if you zoom past a precision boundary, you'll see a sub-grid appear representing the 100 subdivisions of the larger grid square. Again, the smallest square overlapping the centerpoint is highlighted.
This provides an intuitive interactive means to visualize the region within which your location falls, and the maximum precision someone else will be able to determine your location to. By showing a map, we also remind people that spatial precision offers variable privacy -- in rural areas, a square mile may likely contain just a handful of people, rendering your position quite "findable," especially if it's your house. In urban areas, the same grid square might contain thousands of people.
Conveniently, as we are truncating, unchecking the "blurred location" checkbox simply shows a marker at the centerpoint of the map, and full precision is preserved, making the mixing of high and low precision data relatively simple.
This is only a brief overview of the Leaflet Blurred Location project, and we'll be posting some follow-up blog posts to dig deeper into different challenges and issues this new model and project has involved. And be sure to check out our proposal for a "blurred location" specification, here: https://github.com/publiclab/leaflet-blurred-location/issues/205
We're interested in tools that can offer people in online spaces the ability to organize, coordinate, and communicate in regional scopes, while placing the decision of how precisely to share location in the hands of those whose privacy is at stake. And we have worked hard to ensure that a clear mental model and user interface make it easy to quickly grasp what's being shared and how much it's being obscured.
Thanks for reading, and we'd love to hear your thoughts as this library continues to develop.
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Last month, I joined Public Lab’s Director of Community Development, Stevie Lewis (@stevie), for a pair of workshops in southeast Wisconsin for people impacted by the frac sand mining industry. Along with local environmental activists Pat Popple (@pat) and Sheila Danielson, we walked community members through the process of reporting violations by the frac sand industry. These materials are collected here for the public.
At the first meeting in Whitehall, we were joined by about 25 community members who shared their experiences as the frac sand mining industry has encroached on their towns. As mines and processing plants moved into the region, residents have been subjected to unbelievable torments: hauling trucks and train cars running all day and night, blasting happening just yards from their properties — cracking foundations and sheetrock, and damaging wells used for drinking water. One family had been without drinking water for over a year because of damage to their well. Another family had radon poisoning because of cracks in their home’s foundation. Community workshop in Whitehall
Led by Pat and Stevie, we walked through the types of permit violations that can be reported, the documentation that needs to be collected, and where to report to. Residents worked in groups on sample violations and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive; the reporting process was easier than most people assumed. Much of the information that was shared was compiled from the work done by Public Lab fellow Lemmy Kamau (@kamau19), who researched Wisconsin state policies related to frac sand mining so people can cite specific laws and codes that are violated.
After the event, I spoke with a woman named Diane who shared about the constant torment from a frac sand mine that is within yards of her property. The noise from the sand processing and trucks goes around the clock, less than 50 yards from her home. Stadium lights shine in her windows all night long. She said that the noise is so unbearable and there is so much particulate matter in the air that she doesn’t dare leave her windows open, and she has audiobooks and music playing constantly to help drown out the sound. She also spoke of the effects the industry has had on relationships in town. “People need to understand that if they hear of these things coming to their area, they need to take it seriously,” said Diane. “This has ripped our community apart.”
Later that week, we tagged along with Dr. Crispin Pierce (@crispinpierce) and students Connor Barnes (@Cbarnes9) and Aleah Gmeiner-Anderson (@Aleah) from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as they installed Purple Air monitors at the homes of community members who live near frac sand mines. We watched as they set up these inexpensive sensors and showed residents how to track levels of particulate matter online. Some residents have begun tracking sand mines near them (blasting, transporting, etc.) and lodging them alongside changes in particulate matter captured and published by the Purple Air monitors. Not only is Purple Air data hosted online for residents and Dr. Pierce’s team to see, but the data streams were recently added to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ website that collects information on air monitoring. Installing Purple Air monitors in the field with (L-R) Aleah Gmeiner-Anderson, Connor Barnes, and Dr. Crispin Pierce (and a kitty named Sprinkles who came to help)
That evening, we met with about 45 community members in Black River Falls. The session kicked off with a presentation from Aleah and Connor about their ongoing work with air sensors and particulate matter. We again shared information on how to report violations in the frac sand industry and took questions about nuisance complaints. Community workshop in Black River Falls
At the meeting, I also spoke with Dwight Swenson (@dswenson), an agricultural educator at UW-River Falls in Plant and Earth Science. He and his wife have lived in their home in the town of Curran in Jackson County for about 25 years. It’s an idyllic, peaceful community tucked between rolling hills. “But when the sand mine came in five years ago, the peace was stolen from us,” he says. Mining operations have since decimated the hills outside their living room windows, lights from the plant shine all night long, and lines of trucks rumble past the property. The processing plant uses a million gallons of water per day, but little is known about the wastewater treatment and the effects on the local waterways and drinking water.
Of particular concern is the amount of silica dust in the air. Dwight and his wife, Ruth, have Purple Air monitors installed in their yard and Ruth takes meticulous notes on the readings and weather conditions each day. The data routinely show particulate levels that are well into the danger zone, but little has been done to hold the mining company accountable. “We're relying on local agencies to protect us and they've largely failed us so far,” says Dwight. Tipped off by a community member, he recently responded to a spill of viscous, mustard-colored liquid in a local river. He traced it up a stream that flows near his home, back to the mining site. Officials from the department of natural resources showed up to investigate, but not until days later. “This whole frac sand mining industry is so fraught with peril in terms of sustainability.” says Dwight. “It divides communities. And the economics just isn’t there. They’re not sustainable and they’re not financially viable.” Frac sand mine in Curran, WI
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