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July 6, 2011, noon

The MacGyver method: With News Challenge funding, The Public Lab is building up its civic media toolkit

Of all the projects that have won Knight News Challenge grants since 2007, The Public Laboratory is the only one that owes its funding, in some part, to balloons.

Last summer, after the BP oil spill wreaked havoc on the ecology and the economy of the Gulf Coast, documentation of the spill itself was hard to come by: People who wanted to access the site of the disaster, either to assess its impact or to help with the cleanup effort, were often flatly denied. Grassroots Mapping, a project of MIT’s (now renamed) Center for Future Civic Media, stepped in to change that: Armed with helium, balloons, kites, digital cameras, volunteers, and a MacGuyver-like attitude of ingenuity, the project ended up generating high-resolution, birds-eye-view maps that were able, collectively, to document the enormity of the disaster. As Jeffrey Warren, Grassroots Mapping’s founder, told me of the project: “It’s kind of turned the whole Gulf region into a living laboratory.”

Bolstered by the success of the DIY-satellite strategy, in the Gulf and elsewhere, Grassroots Mapping has been expanding, with plans to develop its civic-media toolkit far beyond balloons. Renamed The Public Laboratory (full name: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science), and now consisting of seven self-described activists, technologists, and community organizers, the group has won a $500,000 News Challenge grant* — spread over three years — to develop a civic media toolkit that will take the core ideas of the group’s aerial mapping projects and extend them to facilitate citizen-based data-gathering and research. And, just as importantly, to build a community around that research.

“We want to be taking a lot of this stuff and trying to see if there are new areas we could use it in,” Warren, who serves as The Public Lab’s director of research, says. The Grassroots Mapping project may be the most telling example so far of the work the group wants to do; but it’s not the only work the group wants to do. The Public Lab’s members are now thinking about how to expand the knowledge they’ve gained about aerial-mapping in the Gulf to, for example, infrared mapping, a system that would equip balloons with infrared cameras to track the spread of pesticides through agricultural areas. And they could extend their experiments to other fields, as well. Ultimately, Warren says, The Public Laboratory’s work — and the work of the toolkit Knight is funding — is about finding experimental ways to answer big questions: “What does a civic science look like? And how do people get involved in producing immediate information about their environments in a way that leads to outcomes that are helpful to the community?”

During a year that found many of the winning KNC projects focused on data management, The Public Lab’s toolkit is something of an outlier. And that’s part of the point. “Knight is very interested in digital issues,” Warren notes; “but one thing that I think interested them about our project is that a lot of it is not digital — or not online, per se. The main activity we’re advocating is going to beaches and flying balloons.”

Which is not to say that the project is tech-phobic or even entirely analog. The Public Lab’s members certainly use digital tools (witness The Public Laboratory Archive, which hosts all of the data they’ve collected so far); and as part of C4 and MIT’s Media Lab, they share workspace with, you know, robots. It’s just that technology, Warren notes, is ancillary. “I think we’re actually pretty sophisticated on the tech side,” he says, “but we’re not subservient to it.”

That makes sense: A civic media toolkit, if its previous incarnations are any measure, isn’t just about information-gathering; it’s also about empowering community members to learn about, and document, their immediate environments, ecological or otherwise. While digital tools have their place in that process, it’s the analog items — kites and their counterparts — that, on the ground (and in the air), can actually be most helpful in solving particular problems. They also tend to be cheaper and more easily accessible in rural areas where they might be most useful. Part of the thinking the Public Lab members will do as they develop their civic media toolkit on a broader plane will involve informed judgments when it comes to technology itself: what’s truly useful, and what’s extraneous. With each new idea and application for the toolkit, “the challenge to us is to question whether it’s a good idea at all,” Warren notes.

And the people best positioned to answer that question, of course, are the members of the community who will be using the kit. Tracking pesticides via balloons requires not just infrared cameras; it also requires buy-in from farmers themselves. Which means that the civic media toolkit is as much about the “civic” as the “toolkit.” It’s about “developing an equal partnership,” Warren says, “or at least one where each is giving and getting.”

*This post initially listed the grant as $300,000; it’s been updated with the correct $500,000 amount.

POSTED     July 6, 2011, noon
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2011
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