by Leslie Birch
That’s me in the back row with blonde hair, squinting up at a camera hoisted high on a pole during a retreat for Public Lab, a citizen science group. I didn’t expect to be here, and my story sounds a lot like something from a Lemony Snicket book except it should be titled “A Series of Fortunate Events.” It all started on April 8, 2011, when I read Chicago journalist Jeff McMahon’s tweet of his article in Forbes: “EPA: New Radiation Highs in Little Rock, Philadelphia Drinking Water.” This was around the time of the Fukushima disaster, and although McMahon’s research reported samples of Philadelphia water containing levels of Iodine-131 nearing EPA safety thresholds, none of Philadelphia’s media sources had covered the issue. So, I started researching and even made a call to a university lab equipped for radiation testing of water. I just wanted to know whether the water coming out of my faucet was toxic. There was little cooperation for my investigation, though. A year later, I found an article that suggested radioactive waste from cancer patients may have entered the water supply. Although I never got a resolution to the problem, I did get a great start on my citizen science life. Sometimes you just want answers that Alexa can’t provide.
“Water sensors are like an a la carte menu at your favorite restaurant.”
The issue of water was still on my mind when I received an email from a local environmental center about a call for proposals for a science/art initiative. LandLab is an unusual artist residency program provided by The Schuylkill Center, allowing artists to explore an environmental issue and provide art for remediation. It quickly became the ideal spot for me to uncover another facet of water—stormwater run-off. My project #StormSnakes led me to the side of a road on the center’s property where I discovered two carved ravines leading down to a stream. How much water was zipping down to the stream and causing erosion? What would the future of the land look like? Can I measure this stuff?
As a techie, I was well versed in Arduino, an open-source hardware that I use for projects at Adafruit. I thought it might be useful for environmental monitoring, and in a few clicks on the internet I discovered that Stroud Water Research Center had been making some inexpensive water monitoring systems with this very hardware, collecting data such as depth, conductivity and temperature. Oh, my beating heart! After one email ask, Stroud engineer Shannon Hicks agreed to be my research partner. I got to visit Stroud and see the various research methods used, from stream replicators to sensor stations—the property is like Disney World for environmentalists. Shannon showed me a prototype for a monitoring system she was working on that used an Arduino datalogger, a temperature sensor, an ultrasonic sensor, and a solar panel. With careful soldering, I was able to replicate the system, posting the finished monitor in the Schuylkill Center’s stream. Not only was this a great learning experience, but it was helpful for Stroud’s field testing. Why did it take me so long to realize that my favorite tool could be so useful for the environment?
“It can be very lonely caring for the world, so please do share your scone.”
Citizen science became more than a passing interest for me, it became an ongoing hashtag. I created a citizen science category for my blog posts at Adafruit so more people could discover how open source hardware, STEM, and citizen science connect. I noticed there was a lot of good research on tools and techniques for citizen science at the Public Lab website; it’s just that I wasn’t sure what this group was all about. They were an org, but they were worldwide. They were open source, but some projects seemed university based. What was this strange and wonderful organization, and where did it meet? After lurking on Public Lab’s site for a year, I saw a posting for an event called LeafFest, which was something like an unconference mashed with retreat and hackathon. Everyone was invited (how is that possible?), and so I traveled to a member’s house in Vermont to check out all the fuss. We pitched our tents in the backyard and had gatherings outside or in the living room, depending on the mood. We took hikes and identified mushrooms, tested trail cameras, discussed emergency flood services, sketched plant-based air purifiers, and flew kites. These people were like me! They care about the environment and like to make things by code, craft or whatever means necessary. They also are big believers in Wikis and codes of respect. Not to mention, they love cooking together. Are all research groups filled with such wonderful folks?
“This isn’t about good or evil; it’s about seeing what is in front of you from an unexpected angle.”
My next encounter with Public Lab was at one of their Barnraising events in West Virginia. Barnraisings are a bit more formal than LeafFests, as they have an unconference format and take place in a dorm atmosphere. The idea is to learn about issues in a region from local testimonies and also to share ideas and projects. I met people from different backgrounds, including journalists, scientists, activists and artists. What was most memorable about this occasion was a conversation with a rather shy person who had been fighting the effects of mining in the area. It wasn’t that issues of air quality, land damage and health were so surprising; it was that this person was from a family directly involved with mining. How do you sit down at dinner each night knowing you are in opposition with your loved ones? How do you help the environment and the health of others when work is hard to come by and mining is the only gig in town? Along with discovering local knowledge, I learned how to use kites and balloons for aerial imagery and met people from SkyTruth who use satellite images to reveal environmental issues going on in the world. I was beginning to think that having eyes in the sky was less about being Big Brother and more about bringing collaboration and justice.
“Animals deserve a decent home, and when you put too many of them together, well they stink of course.”
Once I joined some of Public Lab’s Google groups, I started to connect with people doing research, people creating tools, and people experiencing serious pollution. One member in my region discovered that his breathing difficulties and heart palpitations were connected to fine particle dust from a factory farm that was making its way into his home. His first clue that there was a problem was seeing clouds of dust rising from a field near his house and experiencing a burning sensation in his mouth and lungs. The dust would cling to his car windshield and could even be found inside his house on countertops and tables, even though the windows were closed. Testing from a lab revealed lime, and it was discovered that a hauler was bringing truckloads of a mixture of slaughterhouse waste, lime dust and other toxins to the field for disposal. The homeowner was able to get a variety of air quality testers that provided readings to prove his degree of pollution. This was meaningful to me, because it showed the importance of collecting environmental data. Soon after learning about this incident, I learned about the work of the organization Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP). I was asked to present some of Public Lab’s tools at their Factory Farm Summit in Maryland, which is an area known for CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). I shared my knowledge about the Riffle, a DIY Arduino monitoring system that could be used to test air and water quality. I also showed off some simple kite and balloon mapping kits that are used for aerial photography. Hearing testimony from people across the United States experiencing contaminated water, serious air pollution and life-threatening conditions in their homes was shocking. Worse yet, for many that are suffering, it is difficult to escape. You might think that as a victim of pollution you can leave your home, but when your house drops in value due to pollution, you can’t sell. It is an issue affecting many with low income, leaving them destitute. How can you fight something that is legally allowed?
“Life will reach this annoying crescendo, but you still must listen for the violins.”
Do you feel boggled reading this? Do you feel like you don’t know what you are supposed to do in life? I have often known that I have many talents, but I wasn’t sure which I should be using at any one time. However, what is becoming clearer is that I can use any talent or tool that I want in response to what is happening at that moment. Right now, I’m responding to issues dealing with flooding and air quality because those are the top voices I’m hearing right now. I’m using citizen science to investigate these issues and learning how tech can be helpful in handling data.
In the case of flooding caused by hurricanes, it’s possible to track the path of pollutants through aerial imagery. Reports can be filed and companies can be made responsible for the damage and cleanup. Perhaps this data can lead to better methods for storm preparation or improved warning systems. As a Volunteer Community Organizer for Public Lab, I’m also prepping to do a workshop on aerial imaging techniques to share with the public at The Schuylkill Center.
To help with air quality, I’m working on spreading the word about Public Lab’s Riffle system. I’m also helping to replicate testing for a simple Hydrogen Sulfide detector consisting of a piece of copper. This deadly gas is often found at waste lagoons in factory farming operations, and copper may prove to be an inexpensive detection system for people in affected areas.
It’s amazing how the act of listening can open up your own potential to help. I never would have guessed I would be involved with citizen science, yet here I am. If you think Public Lab may be a fit for your talents, there are many ways to contribute, whether through taking research notes, participating in video chat “open hours,” contributing to the site’s Github, or even collaborating on a prototype for a new kit. If you are short of time or want something to do just over a lunch break, check out Zooniverse for web-based projects that can lead to interesting discoveries. Most of the projects have short tutorials that inform you how to identify something found in their posted images. Projects deal with varied subjects like space, neurology, zoology and literature. Life is short; see where the world needs your help, and make your life “A Series of Fortunate Events.”
Title image credit: PublicLab
Leslie Birch is an artist and hacker researching the environment and using technology to share understanding and adaptation. Follow her @zengirl2.