A Crowdsourcing Lab Places Environmental Health Data - and Impacts - into Local Hands

Posted by Sean Carmichael on Jan 7, 2015 3:06:35 PM

A Crowdsourcing Lab Places Environmental Health Data - and Impacts - into Local Hands Public Lab uses crowdsourced data to impact local environmental concerns.

A new DIY agency has been created but this time, it’s DIY with an unusual twist: crowdsourcing data at the community level to impact local environmental health concerns.

Sample Public Lab crowdsourced projects

Public Lab was born out of frustration with the lack of real data following the massive oil spill in the Gulf Coast area. The three founders trained people from local communities impacted by the spill to collect aerial photos using kites and balloons. Their photos were uploaded to Google Earth for all to see the real impact of the oil spill.

Since then, Public Lab has used community-based, crowdsourced aerial mapping to map a new branch of the Mississippi River, document coal export dumping in the Mississippi River, document steps in the restoration of Jamaica Bay in New York, and—together with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—monitor invasive aquatic plant removal.

In Saugus, Massachusetts, a Public Lab project used crowdsourced “annual DIY multispectral kite photography” that has “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.”

In Kampala, Uganda, the crowdsourced aerial mapping methodology helped a community stall eviction proceedings and then document the economic effects of the subsequent eviction.

You can access more details and other Public Lab projects here.

Benefits of the Public Lab approach

Clearly the opportunities for new environmental health investigations are endless with this approach.

Beyond not running out of new opportunities any time soon, it also is likely that public participation in data collection will remain strong. Since these projects are based in local areas and benefit those specific communities, people are easily able to make the connection that participating in this Public Lab’s crowdsouced data collection projects will benefit themselves, their families, and their neighbors.

Teresa Martin in the Cape Cod Times put it this way: This crowdsourcing approach creates a “tantalizing image of how communities can leverage socio-technology trends to understand and manage their own ecosystems from within.”

There is a unique synergy in crowdsourced solutions that in itself has endless potential for novel solutions. Martin makes the key point that, “We often think of innovation as a "thing" you touch or use, but innovation also takes form as new ways of interacting. Indeed, the "how" can be equally innovative as the end product….”

Moving past the scientific benefits, Public Lab hopes to keep “working to level the playingfield by improving the public’s ability to understand and contribute to locally relevant datasets as a key foundation of a stronger democracy.” In other words, greater public participation in environmental health data collection may play a role in impacting lawmakers’ priorities.

As the Ugandan project makes clear, Public Lab's approach need not be limited to science. It is a crowdsourcing approach that need not be limited at all.

Topics: Innovation Insights

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