Busting corporate polluters with DIY tools

Global community of activists use low cost, open source technology to expose environmental violators.

| | Environment, Science & Technology, US & Canada, United States, Pollution

New Orleans, US - On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The well was eventually capped 87 days later. It was the worst offshore disaster of its kind in US history and the environmental effects of the oil spill continue to this day.

At the time of the disaster, a small group of mapping enthusiasts gathered on the Gulf coast to teach volunteers how to gather aerial images of the effects of the oil spill. The photographs were stitched together into maps, which were then used as an independent source of information at a time when a media blackout was being reported.

The success of this initiative gave birth to The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, or Public Lab, a dedicated online and offline global community supported by a non-profit, which focuses on the idea of civic science where citizens can use do-it-yourself tools to gather data about environmental concerns.

Public Lab's open source principles have allowed their community to rapidly design, refine and implement easy-to-use, inexpensive tools made with modified, off-the-shelf technology.

Tapping into the knowledge of some of the leading academic institutions in the US, a community of developers can be found in Boston where they are developing tools to test water quality and detect pollutants such as oil.

What began as a small group of mapping enthusiasts, Public Lab’s community has grown to approximately 5,000 online active users and have developed several kits available for purchase. They are now offering air quality detectors, spectrometers and mapping kits to a global community. 

In the hands of citizens, these tools are being used to gather a huge range of environmental data; anything from canopy loss in Peru to industrial pollution in Spain.

New Orleans, a city that has been plagued by environmental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, has become an active community hotspot for some of Public Lab's tools. The city struggles with pollution from the major oil and gas industries that are spread across Louisiana state.

Public Lab hosts regular community meetings and activity days, where those concerned about their environment can come and learn how to use some of the open source tools to gather data about pollution, which could be vital in holding companies to account.

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