Public Lab’s DIY science plugs community into civic decisionmaking

by: Sally Duros |

Through low-cost tools, Public Lab injects community knowledge into civic decision-making about local environmental issues. This community engagement also alleviates media blackouts and information shortfalls that can occur after a major environmental event.

“That’s one of the essential tenets of Public Lab. It’s about rethinking how people can become involved in the decisions that are being made about the places where they’re living,” says Shannon Dosemagen, CEO and a founder of Public Lab.

Public Lab was born from balloon mapping work during the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Balloons and kites in the hands of community members provided low cost, easy to use transportation for cameras that took aerial images to create maps and provide data for the community’s case on cleanup priorities.

“After the BP oil spill happened … there wasn’t a lot of good or solid information that was coming from the spill. And, so I started using a crowd-sourcing platform and getting people to report what they were seeing or what they smelled or other changes in their environment. And then another project that I ended up working on during that time was with the aerial mapping kit that Public Lab is pretty well known for,” Dosemagen says.

This work earned Public Lab $500,000 in the 2011 Knight News Challenge and in 2013, they were awarded $350,000 in the Knight News Challenge for Health to build a suite of pollution detection tools.

Today five years after its founding, Public Lab says it is an “open community supported by a non-profit” that creates low-cost tools that everyday people can use to create information that residents need about the places where they live. The data collection methods for researching environmental impact typically cost less than $150. The group’s website lists 22 low-cost technologies and more are being developed every day. Public Lab’s map archive includes 326 citizen-made maps from around the world and some are included in Google maps.

The Public Lab non-profit has staff offices in five states with 62 organizers, who Dosemagen describes as “super volunteers.” The super volunteers integrate Public Lab methods or tools with the work they’re doing and the organizations they’re working with. Activities are under way in 12 to 15 solid chapters and a broader community of between 5,000 and 6,000 people who contribute research notes based on the work that they’re doing or participate in one of the many mailing lists that Public Lab maintains.

Public Lab lists scores of DIY citizen projects on its extensive community populated Wiki website. For instance, in Philadelphia, geographers are mapping to visualize and document community events and gatherings in parks and plazas throughout the city. In Southeast Chicago, in an old steel mill industrial area, massive piles of ‘petcoke’ or petroleum coke waste from Canada, are accumulating. Activists and media outlets such as NPR and Vice News have reported on the piles and the possible health hazards. With Public Lab training, the community is documenting the petcoke piles, mapping them and discussing ways to estimate their volume as well as monitor air quality around them. In June, Public Lab will be hosting a Chicago “barn raising” to mobilize community around the petcoke issue.

The belief that decisions about the environment belong to everyone is core to Public Lab’s philosophy.

The non-profit creates space for different types of expertise — from scientists associated with a research institute to community organizers to community educators.  “We’re interested in creating a place where people can bring their different experiences and backgrounds and think through processes together,” Dosemagen says.

This culture springs from the unique perspectives of the seven co-founders of Public Lab. The founders include an environmental organizer, a professional cryptographer, a biologist, an urban designer, another designer and two anthropologists, including Dosemagen. Dosemagen says her training as an anthropologist brings listening and analytical skills that help her understand how to make connections across different groups of people.

“We’re connecting on a different front with the much broader concept of climate change in terms of what it means,” Dosemagen says. It’s not big data, it’s local data, observing the impact from a very local level.

Historically, most tools used to research the environment are created at a price point that’s accessible for research institutions, corporations and government. Few tools have existed that allow people in a community to investigate local environmental concerns.

Public Lab changes that by enabling ground up data-based research and communication from the people in a place to the local governments and the industries whose policies impact the environment.

That’s a huge information gap that community members can fill. Activists, change agents, journalists are limited. They can’t participate in every minute of an event. Public Lab puts the tools — the media platforms and devices — in the hands of the community. Using the tools, the communities can gather information and fill in the gaps.

The outcome could be a media campaign, interfacing with journalists or calling for a larger, systematic study of a certain area.

The annual conferences, or barn raisings, bring people together in the spirit of thinking through a problem and putting together a tool. The gatherings are “unconference” style, which is a flexible facilitation method that allows people to self-organize around the issues and activities they are most passionate about.

While good solid data can be collected by putting accessible tools into the hands of community, the tools themselves can become self-replicating and viral by providing hand drawn, illustrated guides on how to create them. Public Lab’s video tutorials walk people through each step of the process of using them to collect data.

Open source licensing has fed into Public Lab’s sudden growth.

“I’ve heard the word float around several times that using those licenses is infectious in terms of the way things are able to spread,”  Dosemagen says. “If a certain component of that hardware tool is not available they could locally source it and then share that information back with the community. So I think that’s how the community really gains strength and momentum over the years.”

Your last f***able day— time to wax your beard!

In this clip from Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer comes upon Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette celebrating Julia’s “Last f***able day.” It’s meant to skewer Hollywood but yeah, it’s a  a mirror of our culture at large. Since it’s about all of us let’s toast and chug  the melted ice cream, ladies!

LOVE this.

For those engaged in the conversation about social change through culture change or political change here’s your answer. Do you want to listen to a bunch of males mutter about what they will think about doing for you if you put them in office or do you want to watch this and share with your friends and heighten awareness of the unspoken belief systems that  keep women down.

Art is a way forward!

Yes, we need political change and let’s work for that but also as important, perhaps more important let’s prime the culture for change with smart commentary like this.

Your digital brand — journalism ethics

acts of journalism

Committing acts of journalism—  What’s that?

The Web and digital technology have made it possible for anyone to commit an act of journalism.

Today, more people than ever are participating in journalism. People are breaking news on Twitter, covering their communities on Facebook, livestreaming, distributing news via email and writing in-depth blogs on issues of civic and community significance. Some of these people are what we’d consider “traditional” journalists working on new platforms, but many are not. — Josh Stearns, when working at The Free Press. Read the Free Press Report on defining press freedom in the digital age.

That’s why as an independent journalist it’s important that you hard-wire certain attributes into your brand from the beginning.

Among others, these include:

These attributes will become increasingly important if news outlets evolve into a platform for our talent as some of us are predicting.

Continue reading Your digital brand — journalism ethics

Your digital brand 101 — identity as journalist

People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you’re doing it.

acts of journalism
When your brand and your purpose are aligned, you have passion working to your advantage, pulling you forward and drawing others to you.

Getting started on your brand
If you haven’t  established a strong Web presence yet, it’s a great time to get started.  So many tools are available now to make it easy to establish your digital brand and identity as journalist.  In addition, there’s a community of  helpful people on the Web to assist. The biggest challenges these days for building your digital brand and identity as a journalist is doing the work upfront to identify your brand attributes — the kind of journalism you want to be known for, your beat and niche as well as the audience for your niche.

Your brand is about what the audience thinks. Writes Nick Bilton in his book, “I live in the future & here’s how it works”

“It’s an editors job to reduce what a readers brain has to wrestle with.”

That’s the work of your brand. It’s a short cut to the identity that you are co-creating with your audience.

A cautionary tale
Andrew Sullivan is an early blogger, a former New Republic editor – who started his blog, the Dish in 2000. Because his brand as a political commentator had earned him a following at an existing platform, The New Republic, Sullivan’s persona was solidly established when the Dish was hosted by TIME, The Atlantic and finally, The Daily Beast. Continue reading Your digital brand 101 — identity as journalist

Prezi – Your digital brand as a journalist 101

screen one

Here’s a link to the Prezi.

Here’s the transcript.
Your digital brand as a journalist: Showcase your strengths, find your niche to stand out online authentically

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

That is really what a brand is about – how you make people feel. In real life and online, your brand is how people feel about you.

Steve Jobs hated the word “branding” but his brand as a creative perfectionist was iconic . The brand he created, Apple, continues to reflect his core attributes – smart, creative, genius .

To get started
Develop  one word or a phrase —  enthusiastic, passionate, energetic, confident — to express the best of who you are. Express that in all you do and say online and Continue reading Prezi – Your digital brand as a journalist 101

Danger of viral misinformation is painfully visible

Multiplying the dangers of Covid 19 is the viral misinformation infecting our news cycles. Today it is clear that our physical and mental health, and quality of information, are deeply interrelated. This crisis could be a tipping point where the harm of  viral misinformation is finally becoming visible to the public.

Credible sources of information
For the past decade, my passion has been reducing noise, increasing credible sources of information and adding value to our professional and community lives through digital newsrooms.

Having left business journalism in the 90’s to go into Chicago city government and later into mission-based community engagement, and development, I wasn’t sure that journalists were constitutionally suitable for the non-profit world.

This was heavy on my mind having been laid off by the Sun-Times in 2008. For years, I had worked with web entrepreneurs and mission -based businesses and non-profits to build the social good web. My background in journalism and the web seemed a perfect fit for the crusade to save journalism.

Program-related investments
When I learned about the L3C — an investment vehicle that encourages foundations to make program-related investments in mission-based businesses — I connected the dots between news and mission and saw a cause I could fully support.  I plugged into a colleague who ran HuffPost Chicago and he gave me a column, which was at the time a more scarce platform.

I started to write about the L3C Newsroom and began regularly delivering information about this idea and other emerging ideas  to foundation executives and others in the digital newsroom space. Ten years later, I have a backlog of information on the forward direction of newsrooms in the digital age.

During this time, I  also consulted with clients such as the  Better Government Association, when its new executive director was reframing the watchdog organization’s mission and structure. Understanding the vast news and information deserts in Chicago — from my time working in newsrooms and  in Chicago city government — I took on  multimedia consulting and project management  with LISC Chicago, bringing neighborhood voices into the mix through a series of  mobile neighborhood tours. As a community service, I produced a companion  Twitter feed and Facebook page.  Other clients from those years include the Chicago Tribune, the BlockbyBlockCommunityNewsNetwork  and Knight Digital Media Center.

Chicago’s independent news ecosystem
I carved out a small but passionate niche.  My most recent effort was a research project I did for the Chicago Community Trust on the Chicago Independent News ecosystem. Take a look, please.

Meanwhile, I am delighted to be teaching Business Communications at the University of Illinois Chicago and I hope to teach more courses in the future.

I am currently rebooting my consulting practice work after a leave of absence due to family matters and I look forward to continuing my work in the field of digital newsrooms.

Light will follow the darkness
Tracy Baim, Publisher, of the Chicago Reader, has taken the lead on the newsroom sustainability front here in Chicago and has gained the support of  The McCormick Foundation, Driehaus Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, Field Foundation, Polk Brothers Foundation and the  Democracy Fund, to support for the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA). I have been happy to attend a few of their meetings.

Solutions will emerge from this current darkness, and among them will be new ideas for slowing the pace of viral misinformation and creating sustainability for our mission-based newsrooms.  I look forward to being part of those solutions.

Here’s a great video from Neil DeGrasse Tyson on information literacy. Today we are awash in both disinformation and misinformation. I agree that our ability to fully process information and discern truth from lies is tied to our ability to understand context and learn how to ask good questions about whatever we are researching.   

Video here

The future of community news for Knight Digital Media Center.
Independent online news sites for BlockbyBlock.
Social media and advertising for the Chicago Tribune’s 435 Digital.

I discuss the future of newspapers in 2009 with Elizabeth Brackett, Howard Owen and Geoff Dougherty on WTTW Chicago Tonight.

Chicago Community Showcase for LISC Chicago.
This playlist is a series of audio slide shows I produced with community leaders to be delivered through an early Smartphone app. It is the core content of the Chicago Community Showcase YouTube and Facebook channels and continues as the ChiNeighbors  twitter feed, which I still run as a community service.

A video I recorded in 2010 on the idea of an L3C Newsroom, similar to the idea of a crowdfunded newsroom with a community foundation leading the way for smaller family foundations to provide core investments for local independent newsrooms.