Jeffrey Warren: Public Lab is a com­mu­ni­ty and a non­prof­it, and we do envi­ron­men­tal work with peo­ple all over the world. And we real­ly try to address envi­ron­men­tal issues that affect peo­ple. What we do we call com­mu­ni­ty sci­ence, and I think some peo­ple some­times think of Public Lab’s work as trans­lat­ing sci­ence to the pub­lic in a sense. But I real­ly think it’s not exact­ly it. We work a lit­tle on the inside, a lit­tle on the outside. 

And what we try to do is actu­al­ly dis­tinct from cit­i­zen sci­ence. Citizen sci­ence is often defined as peo­ple assist­ing sci­en­tists in the col­lec­tion of data or in doing sci­ence, and it’s admirable, it’s good work. But com­mu­ni­ty sci­ence is about plac­ing sci­en­tif­ic issues that affect communities—which are often envi­ron­men­tal issues—at the cen­ter of the dis­course, and com­mu­ni­ties at the cen­ter of address­ing some of these problems. 

And com­mu­ni­ty sci­ence involves peo­ple not only in data col­lec­tion but in all aspects of the sci­en­tif­ic method and the sci­en­tif­ic process. And we specifically—at Public Lab we sup­port com­mu­ni­ties who are inves­ti­gat­ing local envi­ron­men­tal issues that might affect them and their health: oil spills, chem­i­cal spills, effects of the oil and gas industry. 

And through this work, we get a lot of ques­tions about how knowl­edge is pro­duced at all; like in gen­er­al, in the broad­er sense. And real­ly specif­i­cal­ly how exper­tise func­tions. Who gets to ask the ques­tions or act on the answers? Our mod­el is to place the com­mu­ni­ties that are fac­ing prob­lems at the cen­ter of the work, but also to engage for exam­ple for­mal sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy com­mu­ni­ties, DIY mak­er com­mu­ni­ties, edu­ca­tors, learn­ers, free cul­ture activists, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, facilitators. 

And as you can imag­ine, that involves a lot of cul­tur­al work. So, bridg­ing gaps. I mean, peo­ple speak dif­fer­ent domain-specific lan­guages. People aren’t used to think­ing of how oth­er peo­ple approach top­ics or work through issues. And a lot of this is real­ly about equi­ty. It goes beyond open source. Because in a sense open source, or open access…the idea that every­one should have equal access to it, is not as pow­er­ful or deep an idea as the idea that peo­ple have been pre­vent­ed from hav­ing equal access and so we have to do pro­por­tion­al work to make up those gaps and to bridge those gaps. And Max Liboiron gives a great talk on equi­ty ver­sus equal­i­ty that you should watch instead of lis­ten­ing to me on the subject. 

And so a lot of this ends up being work not only on mak­ing sci­ence find­ings acces­si­ble but its meth­ods, its tools…who actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pates in it. The struc­tur­al issues. And this means both mak­ing more acces­si­ble on-ramps into sci­ence, envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence in par­tic­u­lar, but also chal­leng­ing what’s pos­si­ble, or what ques­tions are asked by lever­ag­ing peer pro­duc­tion and using an open-source col­lab­o­ra­tion mod­el. Engaging peo­ple who have not been includ­ed in sci­ence process­es, but peo­ple who have key and crit­i­cal questions. 

So a lot of peo­ple may ask like, why do it your­self? Like why go through the trou­ble of invent­ing new tools or invent­ing new process­es? Like, why can’t we just scale sci­ence up so that every­one can do it, like make it more avail­able and then you know…but basi­cal­ly unchanged. And if more peo­ple can do it then we’re okay. So it’s more like an edu­ca­tion­al model. 

And I think it’s because…for all that they can do, experts often have a pret­ty nar­row con­cep­tion of where the pub­lic might become involved in sci­ence. Public dis­sem­i­na­tion of sci­ence, for exam­ple, or data entry. Or where sci­ence might lead us. Sandra Harding talks about how the pub­lic should be more involved in select­ing prob­lem­at­ics; choos­ing the prob­lems which we should engage in. And com­mu­ni­ties that are fac­ing some­thing like an oil spill are well-placed to be dri­ving what kinds of ques­tions sci­ence should be address­ing and what kind of evi­dence we should be col­lect­ing to achieve greater envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. And then of course cost is anoth­er bar­ri­er, I think. So we have to address some of the issues of like, build­ing your own tools, because the exist­ing tools are too expensive. 

Just for an exam­ple, part of rec­og­niz­ing and respect­ing dif­fer­ent forms of exper­tise— This is actu­al­ly a pic­ture from the Gowanus Canal. A bal­loon blue map­ping project. So a lot of what Public Lab does, one of our biggest projects is bal­loons map­ping; tak­ing aer­i­al pho­tos with bal­loons. And this one revealed an inflow into the canal that the EPA Superfund process had not dis­cov­ered, and an engi­neer­ing sur­vey of the site had not dis­cov­ered. And it was local activists who who knew the canal, knew the pat­terns, they knew to go and take a pic­ture when it was frozen because that lit­tle chan­nel com­ing out above the word and” is melt­ed ice from that inflow. 

And so there’s local exper­tise that is real­ly pow­er­ful that we want to reify and ampli­fy as part of our sort of embrace of what Sandra Harding again calls strong empiri­cism,” the idea that like we dou­ble down the idea of evidence-based knowl­edge, that it can be more equi­table through that approach. 

Demystifying is anoth­er way we approach this. I want­ed to note this. It’s one of our better-known projects that’s a paper­craft spec­trom­e­ter that you can build. You can down­load the plans, it’s all open-source. But part of the idea here is to break down what instru­men­ta­tion means through a hands-on prac­tice, through arti­facts, through the selec­tion of materials. 

This is anoth­er ver­sion of that cat that’s actu­al­ly made out of Legos. So we speak through the choice of mate­ri­als. We speak through the lan­guage we use to describe these things. And that reflects our com­mu­ni­ty val­ues at Public Lab. 

And I think just to wrap it up, one of the projects I want­ed to high­light was one where peo­ple are mak­ing DIY micro­scopes to ana­lyze sam­ples of res­pirable sil­i­ca dust that results from frac sand min­ing in the Wisconsin area and oth­er places. And real­ly like, what is a micro­scope? And so to try to demys­ti­fy and break that down, cre­ate on-ramps into that. And to enable peo­ple to build their own cheap micro­scopes that are good enough to actu­al­ly see par­ti­cles at the scale that res­pirable sil­i­ca occurs at, we have a basic micro­scope kit that we dis­trib­ute, and it’s build­ing on a lot of oth­er open hard­ware efforts, col­lab­o­ra­tions, and so forth. 

So that’s just one exam­ple of how we do it. But I think the gist of this is that do-it-yourself means chang­ing how we pro­duce knowl­edge, not just tak­ing the exist­ing frame­work and scal­ing it up but actu­al­ly look­ing at some of the struc­tur­al issues that pre­vent peo­ple who most need a more robust envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence frame­work to have access to it and to have agency and the abil­i­ty to direct it. 

Thank you very much.

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