What is Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), and why should anthropologists care? Public Lab is a non-profit “community of researchers” that took shape in 2010 and which includes environmental activists, technologists, academics, and design artists who are interested in developing “grassroots expertise” around environmental issues. Premised on the kind of democratization of science found in Do-It-Yourself hobby circles, the goal is to collaboratively create low-tech technologies for purposes of environmental health monitoring and to make these tools freely accessible. PLOTS partners with community-based groups, including environmental justice organizations, and has set up collaborations from Butte, Montana to Somerville, Massachusetts in the US, as well as a few locations abroad. Public Lab also holds teaching workshops and offers online instruction on how to build their tools. Most importantly, it encourages members of the public to help create, improve, and transform these tools and then share what they build.
The Public Lab builds upon the model of “citizen science,” in which individuals contribute to scientific research by helping count birds or taking water samples, and self-consciously transforms it into “civic science.” Drawing upon the concept developed by anthropologists Mike and Kim Fortun, “civic science” is meant to foster a kind of science in which the public – including underserved communities – help steer research trajectories toward civic-minded ends.
The Public Lab emerged in 2010 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Balloons with digital cameras attached were sent aloft and used to shoot high quality photos of the oil spill. The photos were then stitched together to provide more detailed images of oil plumes and oiled shorelines than either satellites or journalists could offer.
The Public Lab emerged in 2010 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Balloons with digital cameras attached were sent aloft and used to shoot high quality photos of the oil spill. The photos were then stitched together to provide more detailed images of oil plumes and oiled shorelines than either satellites or journalists could offer. Other inexpensive Do-It-Yourself technologies have quickly followed or are in development, including: a plastic hamster ball inhabited by a lego hamster robot that is designed to run across the floor and test for indoor pollutants; an environmental estrogen testing kit for monitoring hormonally active chemicals in home water supplies; consumer cameras “hacked” to shoot infrared photos for ecological assessment; and a low cost hydrogen sulfide (H2S) monitor that is being created in part with a grant from the AAA’s Anthropology and Environment Section. (Hydrogen sulfide is a neurotoxic gas associated with natural gas that is lethal at high doses, making this tool of strong interest to US communities dealing with the boom in natural gas exploration).
An undergraduate class on “environmental struggles” that I teach at MIT got the chance to have fun the Public Lab way when two of the Lab’s cofounders visited our class and helped students build and use a “thermal flashlight.” The flashlight changes color with temperature fluctuations and can be waved over the surface of a home’s interior and used to detect heat loss and insulation needs for a cost of about $50. My students, not only got the chance to build gadgets, but to jump around onto tables to monitor heat loss in overhead pipes and record thermal images on their computers. They were captivated. Although MIT students are predisposed to enjoy this kind of activity, I think they were excited by more than the chance to get out of their seats. In class, we regularly dissect the power hierarchies within countries, government bureaucracies, and scientific research institutions that structure who gets to define environmental problems, determine the solutions, and shape how research on environmental issues is conducted. Here was a chance, not only to think about such power hierarchies, but to create technologies that would try to challenge those hierarchies and simultaneously generate knowledge about pressing environmental concerns.
Most of us are well aware that technologies can be used for a range of political ends. (None of us know, for example, what unforeseen uses someone might put Public Lab’s innovative tools in the future). However, the value of PLOTS and its ability to work counter-hegemonically lies not only in the tools. It is also part of the collaborative relations that go into making and using them, in thinking through the power relations the tools are meant to short-circuit, in taking seriously the material as well as social dimensions of environmental problems, and in supporting grassroots efforts to create a civic-minded environmental health science.
Amelia Moore is the contributing editor of the Anthropology and Environment Section’s Anthropology News column.