Public Lab Research note

5th Anniversary call for memories!

by liz | | 5,137 views | 31 comments |

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Hi, all! Jeff and I spent a little time remembering some of our favorite moments from over the past 5 years.

We'd like to ask people to share a moment they treasure in working with Public Lab -- either as a short video or with a photograph and a sentence or two.

More information at the bottom of this post.

Jeff: One memory that brings a smile to my face is the time a few of us were out in the wetlands of Barataria Bay with Alex Kolker and Alex Ameen in a boat, balloon mapping the islands which were hit so hard by oil during the BP spill. Adam dropped the anchor in so we could try to take a measurement of the shore eroding, but the end of the chain wasn't tied, and it the rope just ran all the way out and plopped into the water as we watched in disbelief. After 40 minutes of searching the muddy bottom of the marsh, Adam surfaced with the anchor, and our bickering turned to relief. That was also the trip where we first prototyped a dual camera rig for infrared wetlands analysis!


Liz: I will always remember a particularly arctic day in January 2011, when a dozen of us jumped into canoes and dug our paddles through a frozen Gowanus Canal. We were flying a balloon camera to search for unusual patterns of ice melts that would reveal illegal chemical dumps - and we found them. That day, our small crew were the only ones freezing our feet off, but by open sourcing our methods, we were supporting and were supported by some of the most heartfelt people across the internet -- the global Public Lab community.


Full PDF on Arctic Expedition:

Now it's your turn!

Share your stories with the community. Pick one of these prompts:

  • what’s a moment you remember from the past 5 years?
  • why did you get involved with Public Lab?
  • what does Public Lab mean to you?
  • what do you love about Public Lab?
  • What is your vision for how community collected data / DIY tools / open collaboration can change the way we work / science as a field?

Post your notes, photos, and embedded videos here in the comments -- we're eager to see them all, and potentially make a mashup community portrait.

Bonus tips for making a video "shelfie"

  • If you're going the video route, start by introducing yourself slowly and clearly as "Hi, my name is [MyAwesomeName]."
  • Then take a breath before restating your chosen prompt as the start of your story. "I got involved with Public Lab because [MyAwesomeReason]"
  • Keep the whole thing to 3-4 short and simple sentences.
  • That's it! Upload somewhere and post / embed the link here.


Tristan's VERY IMPORTANT pickle juice memory:

Pat Coyle memories video snippet:

Jack Summers says "Hi" at (he also screws up the url of his website which is supposed ot be

@JSummers Looks like it's private? can you open it up to public?

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can you access the video now?

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Yes! looks good :)

Here is my video about how and why I joined Public Labs

@Ecta64 Great to put a face to a profile!! Awesome post, love that you used your pole. :) @ann I think your jpg is broken? Can you try to upload it again?

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A great memory shared my many of my biology students was mapping the campus of Western Carolina University in the sunny and warm Fall of 2010. The photos they took and the map they made (with the assistance of Stewart Long) is STILL the top layer in GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps satellite view, despite more recent imagery of the surrounding area. To my knowledge, it is still the biggest map Google has picked up from PublicLab and it still looks great. The research note can be found here.


Ok, another memory that brings a smile to my face is the following: the staff were all in unseasonably-cold New Orleans. I scored a bed in the VRBO we had but Matt Lippincott did not, so I told him if he got cold he could jump into bed with me. He took me up on my offer at 3 AM so I moved over to the cold side of the bed. Brrrrr. Then, in the delirium of sleep, Matt calmly gloated, "Mmmmmm, pre-warmed."

When our project was still a hand-populated circuit boards + ball of wires, I first found I totally loved the spectral workbench. It made me think maybe, just maybe, when we made a 'real' fluorometer (ie not ball of wires), we could have such a database, so I emailed Jeff who's name I found somewhere, thinking there was a 10% chance I'd get a response and a 1% chance I'd get the chance to pick his brain, but BOOM! two days later we had a 45 minute conversation which helped inform our own development of online platform we ended up building.

It shows just how much collaboration is baked into public lab and what happens when collaboration is an ethic not just a side-note.



When Jeff asked me if I wanted to take pictures of his first attempt to balloon-map a courtyard at MIT, I thought that it sounded like a fun excuse to go outside that plausibly fit within my job description, so I readily agreed. We blew up an enormous helium balloon, set up the "stabilizer" (cardboard taped to a plastic bottle head), and experienced the joy of trying to untangle a hundred feet of string without a proper reel.

The full set of pictures is here.

The designs and varieties of the kits and the size of the community has changed dramatically in the last 5 years, but some things have stayed the same: a sense of curiosity and experimentation, a commitment to co-designing with activists, impressive MacGuyvering skills, and Jeff's dedication to excellent outerwear. Happy 5th anniversary, Public Lab! It's been incredible to watch you grow up, and I'm so excited to see what you get up to next.


I am going to contribute a recent memory. This is a picture of Brent and Joan, two workshop participants, in their Zodiac helping me salvage my kite and camera after it took an unexpected nosedive into the cold and frigid waters of the Prince Rupert Harbor. Why does a failed attempt along with lost and damaged equipment sit up there as a favorite memory? Since becoming a member of Public Lab, my life has taken a number of strange and fantastic turns. Inspired by Public Lab's projects, I hatched a foolhardy idea to map a proposed oil pipeline in Canada using kites and weather balloons. Miraculously, I got the funding to do it and am now traveling across Canada, meeting people, hearing their stories, and leading workshops on grassroots mapping. Through my Public Lab experience, I am always meeting kind, generous people. The type who will brave choppy waters to help a complete stranger retrieve a doomed kite and camera and then drive her around town in search of a replacement camera. There are so many similar stories like this one circulating within the Public Lab community and is why I love being a part of Public Lab!

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Here is my contribution about how I got started with PublicLab: And here is a very memorable incident with PublicLab:

One of the great pleasures of working with Public Lab has been introducing my students (who do not identify as scientists - in fact, the opposite) to sensors and mapping. I particularly enjoy their various expressions of surprise when their Coquí sensor works to test water conductivity. These range from "WHOA" to "OH" to "EEK" to "HAH".

I was a student at the Media Lab in 2009, when the oil was still gurgling out of a hole in the bottom of the gulf, and Jeff started talking about what we were going to do about it. My answer had to do with a boycott of BP, and his had something to do with balloons. We decided to help each other out; I was an aeronautics engineer by earlier training, and asked Jeff if he'd at least done the math to determine how much helium we needed to fly a camera, and if he'd gotten the permits necessary to do it in busy Boston airspace. The answer to both was "no", but in true MIT fashion, we proceeded nevertheless. Christina's photos capture the can-do spirit and "to the wind" attitude, which has persisted in Public Lab to this day.

On a later excursion to a UN-sponsored Mobile Data Collection Conference in the Middle East, we built a kite out of tyvek and dowels, stuffed it in a shared taxi in the West Bank and tried to fly in high-gusts over Palestinian organic farms and olive plantations. The kite crashed, but the kids laughed, and I think the footage shot on an iPod Nano survived. Later, we wow'ed Jordanian engineering students in Amman with a balloon over their campus that attracted a crowd of curious onlookers, and nervous security guards. Jeff also bought a "unique educational computer", with 999999-in-one games, which I resulted in a buffer overflow of excitement.

Recently I was telling someone about the Public Lab and the awesome folks I know who are part of it, only to have them respond "oh yeah, I know someone there too." When we realized we were talking about separate, but both totally awesome people, the scale and quality of the community you've gathered together becomes quite clear. Congratulations on these five years of participation and learning, and on to the next. Science!

Here's my memory video: PS - if you going to join Don and Scott for a water quality sensor workshop, pack a lunch.

[url=][img][/img][/url][url=]info-activists-on-boat[/url] by [url=]fiestinx[/url], on Flickr a memory… (and a tribute to ann chen which I have never met but, like many others in the public lab, I already have this strange feeling we share so much together) so, a memory...from one of the lovely and unexpected places I got to, with my public lab wings. The Tactical Tech Info-Activism camp near Lake Orta in Italy, 2013, were I had the chance to meet so many incredible people. Of course I brought my red kite with me :-P (This kite soon will be five years old as well!) We decided to fly the kite with the camera during a boat trip in the lake.. from some reason we were sure that the kite will fly as the boat is moving… it was windy... it made sense... We were wrong - it went nicely up and then dropped - straight down towards the water. I remember Mikel (responding like a real crisis mapper!) pulling it towards us before it reached the water - and at the last moment, he made it! It was such a beautiful day - here are some photos :) soon my video (tomorrow). and here is a link to the research note I posted back then:

My Memory! In Fall 2010, a group of Public Lab-ers, students from The New School, and one (or sometimes two) Newark residents attempted to map the developing riverfront in Newark, NJ. We were faced with a lot of challenges, including, but not limited to: bad weather, street traffic, balloon design, built environment, and even permitted space (a police officer may or may not have shown up to escort us off public works property). Although the end goal was never fully realized, the “Ah ha!” moment came when I started to realize that sometimes it is all about the process and the lessons we learn from each other with each step taken. That’s when I came to love Public Lab.

This picture ( represents that moment to me and part of why I continue to stay involved with Public Lab – it’s a group of diverse individuals working together to solve a shared problem.

From Kris Ansin...

"My favorite memory was getting a call from the environmentalist that ran Sea Shepherd and they needed an extra photographer to take pictures of the BP Oil Spill from a sea plane. Though not a photographer by trade, I leapt at the chance. The first several hours involved being marooned on a lake somewhere in the bayou, but once we went airborne, we got to fly over the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill itself, bearing witness up close to the fire, the spill, and the disaster. But it also represented a summer of working with people (Grassroots Mappers) who cared, deeply, operating at the intersections of justice, environment, and human rights, and I'm humbled that I got to see that so closely as well."

One of my favorite Public Lab memories is when @eustatic and I did a balloon mapping demo at Swamp Stomp, and annual educational field day for Louisiana public school students. The kids were SO EXCITED. Every 20 minutes we'd get a new group of 20-40 students, and they had so many questions about what we were doing with our big red balloon, and everyone wanted a chance to fly it. It was great to interact with them and show them photos we'd taken throughout the day, and the final paper maps from the oil spill. It was also hilarious watching them chase the balloon around and pull funny faces at it. For me, our time at Swamp Stomp really highlighted the emphasis we put on asking questions and having a sense of adventure! A great video lives here:

My favorite memory so far is the kinds of sustained, difficult and trans disciplinary conversations that I've been privy to in my short time working with Public Lab. Over the course of almost all of 2014 Jeff, Shannon, an epidemiologist named Nicole Novak and I were hashing out how Public Lab could build a web platform that could collect very sensitive environmental health data in a way that was highly secure, epidemiologically robust and also facilitated community participation, community analysis of data and community organizing. Trying to reconcile open participation and self-determination of research with the methods of robust data collection was difficult but also extremely exciting to figure out inventive ways to both collect data on science's terms and connect exposed people in human ways. That thoughtful and sustained give and take is the kind of creative and politically relevant work that Public Lab uniquely makes possible. That public lab can do that hard hitting work without forgetting how to have fun and the non-quantifiable joys of grappling with the air, water and land are part of what makes PL so special.

From Lila Higgins.


From Carla Green: My most memorable moment with Public Lab was my trip to Cocodrie, LA. It was my first Barnraising. There is where I met some of the most innovative and fun minds. I experienced technology in a whole new way. I was able to learn how to kite map, design a poster and see a 3D printer in operation. It was a very exciting experience and established relationships with research scientist on whole new level.

One of my favorite moments was the week I spent at LUMCON in Cocodrie for last years Barnraising. It was the first time I got to see what Public Lab was in "real" life. I got to meet a host of wonderful people, organizers, and community members from all different walks of life. Everyone coming together from different backgrounds and with different needs to build a new community together. It was a wonderful experience to be a part of. I got to fly a kite and do low aerial mapping for the first time. I also got to host a session and introduce myself to this awesome world of Public Labbers and for the first time feel engaged and a part of something momentous. Cheers, and Happy Birthday Public Lab!

Reflecting on 5 years of Public Laboratory is a wonderful thing. I was first introduced to Public Laboratory through a cross pollination with Farm Hack, an open source agrarian community founded at roughly the same time. I had been working for years in relative isolation developing agricultural trials and tools with the objective to make the work publicly accessible and open source. In the spring of 2012, I had a strong desire to photograph organic no-till covercrop plots to make the results I was observing more publicly accessible. I had even climbed up on the top of my tractor trying to get as much of an overhead view as I could of the growth patterns that were so dramatic on the ground. It was a great thrill when I overheard Farm Hack member RJ Steinert talk about his adventures with balloon and kite photography in Cambridge the previous weekend. From that conversation, the call went out to the Farm Hack and Public Lab communities, resulting in the first iFarm event which not only put the trials on the map (quite literally as a google earth layer), but also built the foundation for what I believe to be a participatory and exploratory science community that is so important for advancing public knowledge of environmental systems. The energy, enthusiasm, and humor (not always in that order) of Jeff warren, Chris Fastie, Ned Horning, Don Blair and Craig Versek were immediately infectious. The work and conversations that were started through the intersections of the Public Lab and Farm Hack communities has informed almost every significant conversation, paper, and public presentation I have since been involved in.

Each year, the tools get more accurate and accessible, the participation grows, we have more fun, and the costs of observation and communication and action drop. This is all made possible by the collaborative nature of the work, as comradery and the shared joy of observation creates more action and results. I credit Public lab with my own exploration of Natural Philosophy and the process of reclaiming inquiry from the institutional monopoly on expertise. Public lab has changed the conversation for me, even as we work through the challenges of definition and credibility, by focusing my efforts on reclaiming it as a duty for an engaged agrarian citizenry.

Charles Darwin, was an inductive (exploratory) observational scientist and insisted on the importance of writing for the public. “I sometimes think,” he affirmed, “that general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work”. Darwin’s insistence on general accessibility of scientific inquiry and exploratory, inductive observation supports “popular” inquiry as important as original work. He and other enlightenment thinkers recognized the function of science to create a more informed public not just more professional scientists. Public Labs has helped re-discover science is a multi-generational team sport. Thank you Public Lab and happy 5th!

Overall my favorite Public Lab memories boil down to the first time I meet people in person after having had extensive conversations with them via email or phone and experiencing how our relationships progress as we come to work closer together. Each of these individual interactions is transformative for me.

A particular moment that I'm reminded of from the very early days was wading through the water off of a beach in Mississippi. I was waist deep, attached to a balloon that was hundreds of feet above me and Mariko, who I worked with at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, was tracking me on shore with a GPS. I heard her say “oh look, it’s a shark!” and remember feeling my stomach flip and drop. I “ran” to shore through the murky water hoping that I wouldn’t bump into the shark only to find out that it was a two foot dogfish floating along the shore, not the bull shark poised to bite me I imagined in my head.

@Liz put together a video compilation from community submissions:

Here's mine finally uploaded!

Five years old memory:

It was 2010, I was a freelance cartographer creating geographic datasets and maps for human rights organizations in Israel-Palestine. One of the organizations received a request for a meeting from a guy named Jeff Warren that wanted present his project regarding aerial photography using kites. His email was forwarded to me, because for some reason no one at the organization found an interest in the project. I wrote to Jeff and invited him to hang out in Tel Aviv where we will discuss his ideas and to sleep at my place. He came and I spent an inspiring evening with Jeff discussing kite mapping and creative ideas from around the globe. The next day he left back to the US and I kept his ideas in the back of my head.

A few months later Hagit contacted me. She wanted to conduct mapping workshops to youth in Jerusalem. We discussed several ideas and then I remembered this guy, Jeff. I introduced them to each other. Things were moving forward and it was a matter of months and in July 2011 Jeff was here again, this time for a two weeks workshop where i had the chance to enjoy his presence.

I remember us trying to fly the kite with kids from the workshop. After a few minutes more kids came up the hill. Each one of them got a hold of the string, while "encouraging" the kite to fly high and calling the string holder to release it more "atina!" (release (give it) more in Arabic). We tried to regulate the number of kids directly involved, so we asked them to wear gloves. Some of the kids ran back home and came back with cheap, torn latex gloves. We were so amused that we didn't even try to regulate them again.

Usually these kids build their home made kites with improvised materials and strings. It was their first time to fly a commercially built kite with a long string. They were so happy about it that they released it too fast. The kite lost height and landed between the houses.


My favorite PublicLab memory is co-leading a kite mapping excursion with Alex Stoicoff and much help from Jordan M., Dan S., plus the filmer Andre, and Capt. Jody Donewar ( C-; ). There was prep and logistics and phonecalls and emails (of course), but there was also Alex S. and I meeting up the day before to put together our own rig (a first for me), to review station locations, lats and longs...rubber bands and the rest. I remember fondly how, on the day of, I insisted on not using the GPS to find the dock. We went one bridge too far and Siri was immediately barking at us for the last two turns. Hey, its the netherreaches of Southeastern Louisiana. The journey is the destination and hitting it dead on you only short yourself. Like true experts we were better at the more difficult parts, as we found the study sites easier than we found the dock. Capt. Jody helped with this, getting me a new waterspeed record along the way. He also did a great impression/recount of the last time he was out with eustatic, who had stripped down to his skibbies to go Barataria Baywatch on a non-swimming camera that had got loose while parasailing. Luckily no Panasonics were lost this time around, but there were some bumps in the on the water. For a region known for its gale force winds I can't remember how many times I've tried to kite map and got the slack kite line blues. We had a balloon and helium with us but we were a kiting crew, so we got the kite and rig up and told Capt. Jody to gun it. Creating our own wind we got the pictures. Man is it a great feeling to bring the rig down, with X-mas morning faces looking on, and you hear the camera still firing away and see there are hundreds of images on the SD card. Sure many of them were water but somebody's got to document the water, right? We also got some good ones of the coastline and there were smiles all around. At the end of the day I felt I had accomplished something. Better said, WE accomplished something, and I didn't just look on. For the first time kapping I wasn't Gilligan to eustatic's Skipper.

Image at top: Kite and rig up. Jordan M. and Dan S. doing a fine job at the stern. Capt. Jody Donewar at the helm, kapping and Alex S. swamped with logistics and gadgets while planning the next step. And that nutria at bottom left sure has a nice coat. Oh,'s a mic muffle.

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