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How citizen science and open-source tech can create change

Citizen science often gets a bad rap, but a new short film shows how people who take research and data collection into their own hands can influence local environmental policies.

How citizen science and open-source tech can create change
[Photo: courtesy Red Hat]

As a teenager, Jason Gomez never was the biggest fan of science, and among his peers, environmental work brought to mind planting trees. But he lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where asthma and heart disease affected the lives and health of many residents. Uprose, a local environmental justice organization, recruits youth volunteers like Gomez to understand that these are not side effects of living in a working-class neighborhood that one should just accept–they are the result of planning and design decisions that de-prioritize the health and well-being of the residents of those neighborhoods. Specifically, in Sunset Park, they are the result of the Gowanus Expressway, a large elevated highway that runs directly through the neighborhood.

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Through Uprose and HabitatMap, another New York-based environmental justice organization, Gomez and a handful of other youth banded together to figure out exactly how much pollution the expressway was coughing into the neighborhood. “There are no entrances to the expressway in Sunset Par–just the exits,” says fellow youth organizer Brian Gonzales. “So we’re left with thousands of cars and trucks passing through every day.” The exhaust from those cars–particularly particulate matter 2.5, which is so small that 60 particles lined up equal the width of a human hair–is especially pernicious. While larger particles may lodge in nose hairs or the back of the throat and never make it into the body, PM 2.5 passes deep into the lungs and eventually the blood. They cause short-term problems like asthma and bronchitis, and cancer and heart disease later.

Using Aircasting–an open-source air-quality monitoring and mapping tool from HabitatMap–the teens were able to determine that PM 2.5 concentrations were five times higher along the Gowanus Expressway than the citywide average. And in doing so, they acted as citizen scientists.

[Photo: courtesy Red Hat]

Citizen science often raises eyebrows among the academic, lab-based branches of the scientific community. You think of amateur climate scientists noting the delayed arrival of annual frosts, or of birdwatchers tracking species migration patterns. But while they often take a DIY approach, the people driving these observations and the communities that form around them are becoming more critical as the climate and our environments shift both faster and more subtly than researchers that swoop in can often detect. “When a lot of people share information and observations to a big central database, together they show the big picture of patterns that wouldn’t be visible otherwise,” Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, tells Fast Company.

And with open-source software, their findings are becoming easier to verify and share. Red Hat, a leading open-source tech company, created a documentary called The Science of Collective Discovery featuring citizen scientists like Cooper and the Uprose team to highlight the practice for its annual Summit in San Francisco this week.

While Red Hat’s products certainly lend themselves to citizen-science applications–several of their cloud-based data platforms are tailored specifically for scientific research–the projects they highlight in the documentary don’t make use of them. Rather, a representative for the company tells Fast Company that Red Hat wanted to generate interest in citizen science as a valid and necessary tool in community resiliency as environmental conditions shift. The company worked with Cooper, who authored a book on citizen science, as well as other community organizations to identify projects to feature.

So you see Eymund Diegel, a Brooklyn-based planner, using open-source data and hardware from Public Lab to map the sources of chemicals in the notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. His work with Public Lab, a local nonprofit that empowers citizen research, eventually led to the Environmental Protection Agency authorizing the first cleanup of the waterway in over 100 years. The method Diegel used, of flying cameras over the canal with large red balloons to capture continuous images, was first deployed by citizen scientists after the BP oil spill in 2010. Activists who organized that effort went on to found Public Lab.

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HabitatMap’s work with Uprose and the teen organizers in Sunset Park follows a similar story. While they’re just a few examples, they show how people “are starting to consolidate and find synergies, rather than reinventing the wheel,” Cooper says. While much is often made about new tech solutions to entrenched problems, citizen science advocates for equipping ordinary people with basic tools and analytical frameworks to better understand issues in their own backyards. It’s a movement, Cooper says, that’s rapidly evolving, but will only become more important.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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