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May 22 2013

19:31

Want an Affordable Infrared Camera? Give to Public Lab's 'Infragram' Project on Kickstarter

This post was co-written by Public Lab organizer Don Blair.

Public Lab is pleased to announce the launch of our fourth Kickstarter today, "Infragram: the Infrared Photography Project." The idea for the Infragram was originally conceptualized during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and as a tool for monitoring wetland damages. Since then, the concept has been refined to offer an affordable and powerful tool for farmers, gardeners, artists, naturalists, teachers and makers for as little as $35 -- whereas near-infrared cameras typically cost $500-$1,200.

Technologies such as the Infragram have similar roles as photography during the rise of credible print journalism -- these new technologies democratize and improve reporting about environmental impacts. The Infragram in particular will allow regular people to monitor their environment through verifiable, quantifiable, citizen-generated data. You can now participate in a growing community of practitioners who are experimenting and developing low-cost near-infrared technology by backing the Infragram Project and joining the Public Lab infrared listserve.

PublicLab Infrared1.png

some Background

Infrared imagery has a long history of use by organizations like NASA to assess the health and productivity of vegetation via sophisticated satellite imaging systems like Landsat. It has also been applied on-the-ground in recent years by large farming operations. By mounting an infrared imaging system on a plane, helicopter, or tractor, or carrying around a handheld device, farmers can collect information about the health of crops, allowing them to make better decisions about how much fertilizer to add, and where. But satellites, planes, and helicopters are very expensive platforms; and even the tractor-based and handheld devices for generating such imagery typically cost thousands of dollars. Further, the analysis software that accompanies many of these devices is "closed source"; the precise algorithms used -- which researchers would often like to tweak, and improve upon -- are often not disclosed.

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Public Lab's approach

So, members of the Public Lab community set out to see whether it was possible to make a low-cost, accessible, fully open platform for capturing infrared imagery useful for vegetation analysis. Using the insights and experience of a wide array of community members -- from farmers and computer geeks to NASA-affiliated researchers -- a set of working prototypes for infrared image capture started to emerge. By now, the Public lab mailing lists and website contain hundreds of messages, research notes, and wikis detailing various tools and techniques for infrared photography, ranging from detailed guides to DIY infrared retrofitting of digital SLRs, to extremely simple and low-cost off-the-shelf filters, selected through a collective testing-and-reporting back to the community process.

All of the related discussions, how-to guides, image examples, and hardware designs are freely available, published under Creative Commons and CERN Open Hardware licensing. There are already some great examples of beautiful NDVI/near-infrared photography by Public Lab members -- including timelapses of flowers blooming, and balloon-based infrared imagery that quickly reveals which low-till methods are better at facilitating crop growth.

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What's next

By now, the level of interest and experience around DIY infrared photography in the Public Lab community has reached a tipping point, and Public Lab has decided to use a Kickstarter as a way of disseminating the ideas and techniques around this tool to a wider audience, expanding the community of users/hackers/developers/practitioners. It's also a way of generating support for the development of a sophisticated, online, open-source infrared image analysis service, allowing anyone who has captured infrared images to "develop" them and analyze them according to various useful metrics, as well as easily tag them and share them with the wider community. The hope is that by raising awareness (and by garnering supporting funds), Public Lab can really push the "Infrared Photography Project" forward at a rapid pace.

Accordingly, we've set ourselves a Kickstarter goal of 5,000 "backers" -- we're very excited about the new applications and ideas that this large number of new community members would bring! And, equally exciting: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has offered to provide a matching $10,000 of support to the Public Lab non-profit if we reach 1,000 backers.

With this growing, diverse community of infrared photography researchers and practitioners -- from professional scientists, to citizen scientists, to geek gardeners -- we're planning on developing Public Lab's "Infrared Photography Project" in many new and exciting directions, including:

  • The creation of a community of practitioners interested in infrared technology, similar to the community that has been created and continues to grow around open-source spectrometry.
  • The development of an archive for the Infrared Photography Project -- a platform that will allow people to contribute images and collaborate on projects while sharing data online.
  • Encouragement of agricultural imagery tinkering and the development and use of inexpensive, widely available near-infrared technologies.
  • Development of standards and protocols that are appropriate to the needs, uses and practices of a grassroots science community.
  • Providing communities and individuals with the ability to assess their own neighborhoods through projects that are of local importance.
  • The continued development of a set of tools that will overlap and add to the larger toolkit of community-based environmental monitoring tools such as what SpectralWorkbench.org and MapKnitter.org provide.

We hope you'll join us by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign and help grow a community of open-source infrared enthusiasts and practitioners!

A co-founder of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, Shannon is based in New Orleans as the Director of Outreach and Partnerships. With a background in community organizing, prior to working with Public Lab, Shannon held a position with the Anthropology and Geography Department at Louisiana State University as a Community Researcher and Ethnographer on a study about the social impacts of the spill in coastal Louisiana communities. She was also the Oil Spill Response Director at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, conducting projects such as the first on-the-ground health and economic impact surveying in Louisiana post-spill. Shannon has an MS in Anthropology and Nonprofit Management, a BFA in Photography and Anthropology and has worked with nonprofits for over thirteen years.

Don Blair is a doctoral candidate in the Physics Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a local organizer for The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a Fellow at the National Center for Digital Government, and a co-founder of Pioneer Valley Open Science. He is committed to establishing strong and effective collaborations among citizen / civic and academic / industrial scientific communities through joint research and educational projects. Contact him at http://dwblair.github.io, or via Twitter: @donwblair

April 02 2013

10:39

How Public Lab Turned Kickstarter Crowdfunders Into a Community

Public Lab is structured like many open-source communities, with a non-profit hosting and coordinating the efforts of a broader, distributed community of contributors and members. However, we are in the unique position that our community creates innovative open-source hardware projects -- tools to measure and quantify pollution -- and unlike software, it takes some materials and money to actually make these tools. As we've grown over the past two years, from just a few dozen members to thousands today, crowdfunding has played a key role in scaling our effort and reaching new people.

DIY Spectrometry Kit Kickstarter

Kickstarter: economies of DIY scale

Consider a project like our DIY Spectrometry Kit, which was conceived of just after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to attempt to identify petroleum contamination. In the summer of 2012, just a few dozen people had ever built one of our designs, let alone uploaded and shared their work. As the device's design matured to the point that anyone could easily build a basic version for less than $40, we set out to reach a much larger audience while identifying new design ideas, use cases, and contributors, through a Kickstarter project. Our theory was that many more people would get involved if we offered a simple set of parts in a box, with clear instructions for assembly and use.

By October 2012, more than 1,600 people had backed the project, raising over $110,000 -- and by the end of December, more than half of them had received a spectrometer kit. Many were up and running shortly after the holidays, and we began to see regular submissions of open spectral data at http://spectralworkbench.org, as well as new faces and strong opinions on Public Lab's spectrometry mailing list.

Kickstarter doesn't always work this way: Often, projects turn into startups, and the first generation of backers simply becomes the first batch of customers. But as a community whose mission is to involve people in the process of creating new environmental technologies, we had to make sure people didn't think of us as a company but as a community. Though we branded the devices a bit and made them look "nice," we made sure previous contributors were listed in the documentation, which explicitly welcomed newcomers into our community and encouraged them to get plugged into our mailing list and website.

newbox.jpg

As a small non-profit, this approach is not only in the spirit of our work, but essential to our community's ability to scale up. To create a "customer support" contact rather than a community mailing list would be to make ourselves the exclusive contact point and "authority" for a project which was developed through open collaboration. For the kind of change we are trying to make, everyone has to be willing to learn, but also to teach -- to support fellow contributors and to work together to improve our shared designs.

Keeping it DIY

One aspect of the crowdfunding model that we have been careful about is the production methods themselves. While it's certainly vastly different to procure parts for 1,000 spectrometers, compared to one person assembling a single device, we all agreed that the device should be easy to assemble without buying a Public Lab kit -- from off-the-shelf parts, at a reasonable cost. Thus the parts we chose were all easily obtainable -- from the aluminum conduit box enclosure, to the commercially available USB webcams and the DVD diffraction grating which makes spectrometry possible.

spectrometry.jpg

While switching to a purpose-made "holographic grating" would have made for a slightly more consistent and easy-to-assemble kit (not to mention the relative ease of packing it vs. chopping up hundreds of DVDs with a paper cutter...), it would have meant that anyone attempting to build their own would have to specially order such grating material -- something many folks around the world cannot do. Some of these decisions also made for a slightly less optimal device -- but our priority was to ensure that the design was replicable, cheap, and easy. Advanced users can take several steps to dramatically improve the device, so the sky is the limit!

The platform effect

One clear advantage of distributing kits, besides the bulk prices we're able to get, is that almost 2,000 people now have a nearly identical device -- so they can learn from one another with greater ease, not to mention develop applications and methodologies which thousands of others can reproduce with their matching devices. We call this the "platform effect" -- where this "good enough" basic design has been standardized to the point that people can build technologies and techniques on top of it. In many ways, we're looking to the success of the Arduino project, which created not only a common software library, but a standardized circuit layout and headers to support a whole ecology of software and hardware additions which are now used by -- and produced by -- countless people and organizations.

Spectral Challenge screenshot

As we continue to grow, we are exploring innovative ways to use crowdfunding to get people to collaboratively use the spectrometers they now have in hand to tackle real-world problems. Recently, we have launched the Spectral Challenge, a kind of "X Prize for DIY science", but it's crowdfunded -- meaning that those who support the goals of the Challenge can participate in the competition directly, or by contributing to the prize pool. Additionally, Public Lab will continue to leverage more traditional means of crowdfunding as our community develops new projects to measure plant health and produce thermal images -- and we'll have to continue to ensure that any kits we sell clearly welcome new contributors into the community.

The lessons we've learned from our first two kit-focused Kickstarters will help us with everything from the box design to the way we design data-sharing software. The dream, of course, is that in years to come, as we pass the 10,000- and 100,000-member marks, we continue to be a community which -- through peer-to-peer support -- helps one another identify and measure pollution without breaking the bank.

The creator of GrassrootsMapping.org, Jeff Warren designs mapping tools, visual programming environments, and flies balloons and kites as a fellow in the Center for Future Civic Media, and as a student at the MIT Media Lab's Design Ecology group, where he created the vector-mapping framework Cartagen. He co-founded Vestal Design, a graphic/interaction design firm in 2004, and directed the Cut&Paste Labs project, a year-long series of workshops on open source tools and web design in 2006-7 with Lima designer Diego Rotalde. He is a co-founder of Portland-based Paydici.com.

August 13 2012

14:00

Movement-Based Arts Inspire Public Lab's DIY Environmental Science

Researchers at Public Laboratory pursue environmental justice creatively, through re-imagining our relationship with the environment. Our model is to rigorously ask oddball questions, then initiate research by designing or adapting locally accessible tools and methods to collect the data we need to answer those questions.

We've found, perhaps not surprisingly, that innovation in tools and methods frequently emerges from creative practices. In the larger trend of art plus science collaboration, 2D graphics, illustration, and visualization get most of the glory. But sculpture and dance are also major drivers of environmental imagination -- and therefore scientific inquiry.

taking back the production of research supplies

publiclab.jpg

In early July, approximately 25 people gathered in the cool interior of the 600,000-square-foot Pfizer building to design and build kites and balloons. This event was led by a sculptor, Mathew Lippincott, one of the co-founders of Public Laboratory. From his workshop in Portland, Ore., he's been researching the performance of tyvek and bamboo as well as ultra-lightweight plastic coated with iron oxide powder that heats itself in the sun. Because community researchers around the world use commercially produced kites and balloons to lift payloads (such as visible and infrared cameras, air quality sensors, and grab samplers) high into the air, this is part of a mission-critical initiative to take back the production of research supplies into the hands of local communities.

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dancers and scientists collaborate

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What you may not be expecting to hear is that half of the workshop attendees were dancers or choreographers, organized by Lailye Weidman and Jessica Einhorn, two fellows of iLAND, an organization dedicated to collaboration between dancers and scientists. Inspired by embodied investigations into atmospheric pressure and dynamics, these dancers joined the sculptors to drive forward a research agenda into the little-understood urban wind condition. Other attendees included engineers, theater artists, design students, landscape architects, and urban foresters. This group spent the weekend splitting bamboo, heat seaming painter's plastic towards building a solar-heated balloon large enough to lift a person, and learning about aerodynamics through attempting to fly their creations.

This work on the replicability (ease of making) and autonomy (easily procurable materials) of DIY aerial platforms -- directed by the aesthetic and embodied sense of sculptors and dancers -- has increased the ability of non-professional scientists to ask and answer their questions about their environment.

May 03 2012

13:53

How We Got Here: The Road to Public Lab's Map Project

Last week, Public Laboratory announced that public domain maps are now starting to show up on Google Earth and Google Maps. But how did the projects get there? Here's a timeline of a Public Laboratory map project.

Making a map

Public Laboratory projects take a community-based approach to making maps that differs depending on where you are and the reason you want to create a map. People map areas for a number of reasons, including because there's a need to monitor an area of environmental concern, a dynamic event is happening that there's a desire to capture, or you cannot find adequate aerial image data. Before going out to map, preparing for fieldwork starts with the Public Lab map tools page, where you can discover what type of equipment to use and how to safely use it. Multiple research notes on how to do things such as setting up a dual camera rig and stabilizing the camera with a picavet can help with specific problems, but there are also hundreds of people in the online Public Lab community of mapmakers, sharing tips and experiences on the site.

Upon return

After the mapping flight, the map making begins with backing up the images and sorting through the set, making a subset for map production. Depending on the time in the air, there will be hundreds and sometimes thousands of individual images. Depending on the area of interest, you can hone in on which images will be used in creating the map. Assuming the flight was at a steady altitude, the images that you want to select are the sharpest ones that are vertically oriented. If you have many images for the same area, pick the best one, but also pick overlapping images so that there is plenty of overlap among the different images in the next step.

mapmill.jpg Public Laboratory's MapMill.

Images can be sorted locally or online. Public Laboratory created an online tool where a group can do collaborative selection. MapMill.org is a web-based image sorting and ranking tool where multiple users can sort through a large dataset simultaneously.

Map production

With a smaller set of the best images on hand, the images can be dynamically placed on the map in a process known as georectification. After all the images have been added to the map, the project is exported. The MapKnitter export tool does all of the geographic information systems crunching behind the scenes with the geospatial data abstraction library (gdal.org) and produces a GeoTIFF map file. The GeoTIFF format is a public domain metadata standard that embeds geographic information into the image TIFF file. At this point, the map is now in an interchangeable format that can be easily distributed.

MapKnitter.jpg Public Laboratory MapKnitter web-based aerial image map production tool.

Public Laboratory Map Archive

Public Lab hosts its own map data archive for storing and sharing finished map projects. Each map in the archive has a "map details page" that hosts details such as: title, date, place, location, resolution, field map maker, field notes, cartographer, ground images, oblique images from the flight, and comments from website users. The map participants choose whether to publish the map as Public Domain, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike, Creative Commons Attribution, or Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial.

occupy-oakland.jpg Public Laboratory Occupy Oakland, November 2, 2011 -- General Strike map in Google Earth.

Maps are viewable on the archive itself, and you can subscribe to it as an RSS feed. However, it's also a place for distribution of the data. As we announced last week, Google Earth has started licensing our public domain maps. Google Earth plans to continue to publish public domain maps from the Public Lab Archive a few times a year.

It's quite exciting to see these Public Labs maps go online with a ubiquitous data provider such as Google. We look forward to more people participating in this activity, and more publishing of public domain data.

rifle.jpg Google published some of the maps to Google Maps as well as Google Earth, which makes those maps widely accessible in the web browser and on mobile applications that use Google Maps.

April 19 2012

13:31

Public Lab's Community-Created Maps Land on Google Earth

We've just announced that community-generated open-source maps from the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) -- captured from kites and balloons -- have been added to Google Earth. The 45-plus maps are the first aerial maps produced by citizens to be featured on the site, and are highlighted on the Google Lat Long Blog.

The Public Laboratory is an expansion of the Grassroots Mapping community. During an initial project mapping the BP oil spill, local residents used helium-filled balloons and digital cameras to generate high-resolution DIY "satellite" maps documenting the extent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- at a time when there was little public information available. Expanding the toolkit beyond aerial mapping, Public Laboratory has been growing into a diverse community, both online and offline, experimenting with new ways to produce information about our surroundings. The lab's DIY kits cost less than $100 to assemble.

"We're very excited to be able to include some of the balloon and kite imagery from the Public Laboratory in Google Earth. It provides a unique, high-resolution view of interesting places, and highlights the citizen science work of the Public Laboratory community," said Christiaan Adams of Google Earth Outreach.

"The Public Laboratory is demonstrating that low-cost tools, in the hands of everyday people, can help generate information citizens need about their communities," added John Bracken, Knight Foundation program director for journalism and media innovation.

a mission of civic science

Especially exciting is a map of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn, N.Y., that was created during the winter of 2011 and has been added to the primary layer of Google Earth/Google Maps. The New York chapter of Public Laboratory has begun an ongoing periodic monitoring campaign in partnership with local environmental advocacy group the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. Designated a Superfund cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 due to pollution from decades of coal tar accumulation in canal sediments, and suffering from 300 million gallons of untreated sewage which are released into the canal yearly, local activists have adapted and improved many of the techniques developed for monitoring the effects of oil contamination in the Gulf of Mexico. That a group of local activists could create a high-resolution map of an area they care about -- and that such imagery could replace commercial and government data as a recognized representation of that place -- is a powerful example of the civic science mission of Public Laboratory.

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Democratizing diy

Public Lab is a community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible "Do-It-Yourself" techniques, Public Laboratory creates a collaborative network of practitioners who actively re-imagine the human relationship with the environment.

The core PLOTS program is focused on "civic science" in which we research open-source hardware and software tools and methods to generate knowledge and share data about community environmental health. Our goal is to increase the ability of underserved communities to identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns. PLOTS achieves this by providing online and offline training, education and support, and by focusing on locally relevant outcomes that emphasize human capacity and understanding.

Please watch for the follow-up post by Public Lab's Stewart Long in the next week.

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