Public Lab was inspired by the information blackout surrounding the 2010 BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite having a massive impact on residents and the environment, local communities received sparse, incomplete data that contradicted what they could see unfolding in front of them. As news of the spill’s severity spread nationally and outrage about limited access to information simmered locally, Public Lab’s would-be co-founders convened in the Gulf Coast as part of the Grassroots Mapping collaborative.
The Grassroots Mappers were a group of people seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography by using helium balloons and kites to loft their own "community satellites" made with inexpensive digital cameras. Partnering with New Orleans-based environmental justice organization Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Mappers trained over one hundred local volunteers and activists who collected over 100,000 aerial images of the coastline before, during, and after the oil spread. Then, using MapKnitter, an open source platform created by the group, residents stitched these images into high resolution maps of the disaster as it unfolded. Through a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, these high resolution maps were uploaded as a primary or historical layer to Google Earth, making them globally accessible and allowing residents to speak their truth about what was going on in the Gulf.
Grassroots Mapping becomes Public Lab
The success of the grassroots mapping effort galvanized Public Lab’s founders to create a new research and social space for the development of low cost tools that enable community based environmental monitoring and research. By focusing on DIY, open-source tools, Public Lab takes science out of its ivory tower, making technology something anyone can develop, good science something anyone can do, and empowering residents to ask questions and seek answers. With early support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation via the Knight News Challenge, Public Lab formally launched as a nonprofit organization in summer of 2011.
Balloon Mapping of River Restoration at Mardi Gras Pass
January 2013: Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), a wetlands watchdog group and a valuable partner of Public Lab, has repeatedly used aerial mapping tools to advocate for wetlands restoration projects and to keep community and partner organizations abreast of progress (or lack thereof). One specific instance is the use of kite photography to educate and agitate for the closure of a new branch of the Mississippi River, “Mardi Gras Pass.” If left alone, this new distributary arm would feed protective marshes and swamps with nourishing sediment and water.
Image by @eustatic
United Bulk Coal Terminal Monitoring
With Public Lab training, tools, and support, Public Lab organizer Scott Eustis of Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) and Devin Martin of Sierra Club successfully captured low-altitude photos of ongoing coal export dumping in the Mississippi River. The images they secured of the coal pile over time changed GRN’s understanding of the extent of Oiltanking/United Bulk’s alleged environmental crimes and led to funding for further documentation and water quality analysis of this facility, culminating in a notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water Act.
Although GRN had been passively monitoring this site via aircraft, the kite photo, because of its low-altitude and oblique angle, led to a new understanding that moved Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to do a site visit. GRN, Sierra Club, Louisiana Environmental Action, Tulane Law, and Public Citizen, have prepared to sue to improve the facility and levy fines against the company for their damages to Louisiana’s waters: they are currently in negotiations with the company. The image itself is one of a series in legal proceedings, but is more value than others taken by planes because of its level of detail. The photo is used as an organizing tool to demonstrate effective imagery for officially documenting Oiltanking’s water pollution crimes to volunteer pilots and GRN members who reside in the area.
Image CC-BY @gwirth
Documenting Restoration Projects in Yellow Bar
Jamaica Bay, NY
Public Lab organizer Gena Wirth and Eymund Diegel, along with Rob Holmes of the Dredge Research Collaborative, conduct aerial imaging documentation on various restoration islands in Jamaica Bay. Aerial maps document progress on the Army Corps of Engineers initiative to restore eroding salt marsh habitat with recycled dredge material, show shoreline and vegetation change over time, and document citizen participation in these efforts. Jamaica Bay’s Islands are in constant transformation. For decades, Yellow Bar hummock (pictured here) has been shrinking and losing ground due to intensifying urban impacts in the Jamaica Bay watershed. This pattern recently reversed course under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, who use the island as a site to dispose of dredge material and as a test case for expanding ecosystems in decline.
Like much of Jamaica Bay the resulting landscape is neither fully industrial or fully natural, though it retains aesthetic and performative qualities of both. The flat expanse of newly constructed ground is composed of clean sand dredged from the Ambrose Channel, the main shipping channel leading to the port of NY/NJ. Aerial maps reveal the regularized distribution of the complex marsh matrix of sediment, Spartina, and ribbed mussel, which grow together in a functional ecosystem and stabilize the marshland. Beyond the dotted fringe of cordgrass clumps our photos document the expansive island interior, touched by the Army Corps of Engineers in a more economical fashion with a grid of fences marking Spartina plug planting zones. Some mapping events have been led in partnership with the American Littoral Society and Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers.
Image by @cfastie
Monitoring Invasive Aquatic Plant Removal
UMass Amherst, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and Pioneer Valley Open Science monitored invasive aquatic plant removal using DIY multispectral aerial photography and balloon mapping kits. Aerial photographs of the lake effectively reveal the invasive water chestnut, as it is distinguishable by both color and texture at low altitudes. The goal is to use normal and color infrared images to locate patches of water chestnut as part of the much needed yearly monitoring to prevent the plant from spreading. Through continued technical development, Pioneer Valley Open Science is interested in automating classification of NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) images as a “one-click” solution for citizens monitoring invasive species in their waterways.
Monitoring an Open Landfill
Public Lab worked on a multi-year project with Basurama.org to monitor the growth and treatment of ash at the open landfill bordering the Saugus waste incinerator, adjacent to both wetland and residential areas, with annual DIY multispectral kite photography. The project engaged residents of the Boston area in investigating local waste cycles as well as the toxicity and exposure issues related to the waste incineration process and the storage of ash. Public Lab organizer, Pat Coyle has recently worked on a 3D (Surface From Motion) reconstruction of the site using images collected from the kite photographers. Project lead Pablo Rey Mazón hopes to work towards connecting the 3D map with volume estimates that other Public Labbers are researching to compare with official data. Rey Mazón plans to replicate the project with a similar trash incinerator in Bilbao, Spain.
Image by @mlamadrid
Use of Balloon Mapping to Temporarily Stall Eviction Proceedings
Using aerial mapping, the Craft Market near Kampala worked with María Lamadrid to combine a high resolution map of the area with community narratives. The goal was to gain time so the community could organize next steps and create a dialogue around urban planning and displacement. The Craft Market was able to legally stall their eviction for a month by using the map to acquire a court injunction from local authorities. They also interfaced with the Ministry of Tourism via the map they created, demonstrating their value to the tourism industry. The Ministry of Tourism sent a team to evaluate the Market and tried to advocate to the Ministry of Land on behalf of the Market. In the end, the Ministry of Land went through with evicting the community. The Craft Market decided to do a second map to record the progress of clearing and to document the lack of support during the eviction, demonstrating how the eviction displaced the previously flourishing market to a side street. Using this map, the Craft Market is still in the process of advocating their case. View the map here: https://mapknitter.org/map/view/juakali.
Gowanus Low Altitude Mapping (GLAM)
Brooklyn, New York
Public Labbers are working with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and Proteus Gowanus to conduct environmental investigations in the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site and broader watershed using aerial imagery. There are three distinct goals within GLAM: 1) researching biodiversity to better manage the urban ecosystem; 2) conducting eco-detective work to improve the government’s Superfund clean-up plan; and 3) advocating for watershed health by identifying upland sites that can be used for storm water absorption to reduce downhill sewage overflow events into the canal. GLAM has succeeded in improving the Superfund clean-up plan: diligent investigation led to the discovery of an unknown freshwater inflow in the Gowanus First Street Basin, and their presentation to the EPA’s Community Advisory Group was so effective that Superfund restoration expanded an additional city block. Through vigilant aerial surveying, despite ice and blazing sun, the subsequent analysis identified four active pipes and inflows that the EPA’s survey missed which is leading to other improvements in the clean-up plan. Other independent research projects of the Gowanus have uncovered what appear to be historical Revolutionary War burial grounds which have since led to partnerships with the Brooklyn Preservation Council and the local Veterans Affairs chapter, as well as support from the Governor of Maryland and coverage in the NY Times.
Image by @cfastie
Documenting and Quantifying Soil Treatments
Public Lab is part of a multi-year project to document and quantify cover crop soil treatment and silvopasture trials using infrared photography and aerial mapping. This is part of a broader effort to develop data-driven analysis tools to support small-scale organic farmers, and is being pursued in partnership with Green Start, Farm Hack, Pioneer Valley Open Science, and the sustainable agriculture program at the University of New Hampshire. Through this work, collaborating farmers have gained a better understanding of the health of their crops as well as a greater capacity for regularly comparing crop health at low cost. In addition to providing a compelling case study and proof of concept for the tools that are being developed through this work, the research has produced new insights and initiated new projects— such as more affordable and robust single-camera multispectral imaging that forms the basis of the Public Lab Infragram program.
Image by @warren
Refining Methodologies for Oil Identification
Testing at a Boston-area meet up helped to refine “do-it-yourself” methodologies for identifying different contaminant oils— ranging from motor oil to tar balls washed ashore after a crude oil spill. Attendees to the event, hosted by the neighborhood education group Parts & Crafts, included local residents, as well as members of the Mystic River Watershed Association and Pioneer Valley Open Science. The prototype testing involved a new technique for distinguishing oil samples via florescence using an inexpensive blue laser pointer. The tests were promising, and the technique appears robust: showing similar fluorescence curves despite slight variations in sample preparation. These were included in our alpha-stage prototype oil contamination test kit and continue to be developed. These methods show great promise, and will likely be included in our prototype oil contamination test kit. Follow progress on the oil testing kit here: publiclab.org/tag/oil-testing-kit.
Documenting Code Violations by Metal Recycling Center
East Providence, RI
Local residents and Northeastern University faculty used kite mapping kits to monitor a metal recycling center for code violations and contamination. This is a long, complex investigation involving legal battles. A neighborhood in East Providence, RI adjacent to a large construction waste-grinding business has noted toxic dust from the plant filtering into homes and yards. Many in the neighborhood suffer from respiratory and other health problems thought to be associated with the dust. Neighborhood activists managed (with Toxic Action Center’s help) to have the waste grinding stopped. However, the same business owner re-opened the plant as a scrap metal processing operation, but with a permit that allows for limited operations for under fifteen tons of wood products. After the waste grinding stopped, balloon mapping was organized in March 2013 to document whether there was unpermitted processing of materials other than wood. Advocates have added detailed annotations to their aerial imagery to communicate the issues on the ground and attempt to convince authorities to take action to determine whether the plant is in fact processing materials beyond wood.
Image by @karenv
Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant Mapping
Using images collected via kite mapping, organizers are challenging the lack of a permit for new construction of a waste storage facility at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. To date, two aerial imaging trips led by Cape Cod Bay Watch have given local residents the ability to keep themselves informed about the progress of the construction, in addition to generating images and a compelling story which has resulted in press coverage (WBUR Boston-NPR) of their monitoring and advocacy efforts.