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Civic Information Starter Kits: open hardware for government accountability

In the past 6 months, over 3,000 open hardware kits have been distributed by Public Lab, enabling civic-minded groups to empirically verify government data and inaugurating a new generation of civic information tools to hold government accountable.

Public Lab Civic Information Starter Kits level the “data playing field,” making it possible for citizens to issue rigorously collected, high-quality, local environmental datasets for use alongside government data for verification and advocacy.


The Situation: How credible is government data, and what is transparency worth if datasets cannot be independently confirmed or verified? Every city should have citizen journalists capable of testing the assertions of government and industry, and every local newspaper should be able to double-check released data. With environmental data, this is now possible -- but only through the radical innovations provided by the open hardware movement.


The Opportunity: Open hardware is emerging as a frontier for civic engagement and accountability. Unlike transparency groups who must rely mainly on legal loopholes, FOIA requests, and the weight of public opinion, Civic Information Starter Kits create leverage by enabling communities to cross-check and challenge “official” data with their own affordable environmental data-collection tools, keeping government and industry honest. A “Small Data” alternative to the “Big Data” projects frequently championed by the Open Gov movement, these Kits have given citizen groups and local residents a voice in civic processes normally dominated exclusively by government and industry-produced data or stymied by the lack of any data at all.


Our Credentials: Hardware hacking communities like Public Lab have been instrumental in innovating and refining powerful new civic information tools like DIY aerial “watchdog” rigs and low-cost chemical-detecting spectrometers. The affordable open hardware “starter kits” which Public Lab has already begun to distribute have become a huge engine for growing civic participation. A concerted effort to distribute these Kits can make them the “shared platform of civic information” -- building bridges between technologists, activists, and journalists through a powerful ecology of new data collection tools.


The Broad View: Many of the critical issues of our time -- climate change, natural resource extraction, urban (re)development, infrastructural resilience -- have measurably local effects. Enabling citizens to document environmental conditions is increasingly important as industry becomes more adept at skirting environmental, health and safety regulations. “Watchdog” Kits for environmental monitoring produce data which is verifiable, defensible, and immediately useful -- not just a bunch of meaningless data points. From the ongoing debate on the effects of fracking to the questionable extent of EPA data on pollution sources, simply requesting that data be shared is not enough -- the data itself may be incomplete, biased, out of date, or never collected in the first place. While independent testing in situations like this is traditionally prohibitively expensive, emerging open hardware tools are increasingly making it possible to double-check and even successfully challenge this data.


The Ask: To support and accelerate Civic Information Starter Kits, we are requesting funding for:


1. Scaling development and production of Civic Information Starter Kits: This project will provide resources to scale existing Kits (e.g., aerial mapping and contaminant detection via spectrometry) as well as develop novel Kits, enabling over 10,000 participants to produce their own civic data in the next 2 years. Scale is critical because bulk manufacturing is needed to meet demand and expand outreach more equitably and quickly than purely digital means.


2. Building the “Small Data” platform: This project will make big data from grassroots sources in three ways: 1) Developing a platform for publishing data collected with Kits; 2) Formatting citizen-collected data to be comparable to government data; 3) Making data actionable by communities to agitate for change, online and offline. The “Small Data” platform helps large decentralized groups organize across issues, locations, specific pollutants by telling a collective narrative.


The Wrap-up: Our Civic Information Starter Kits empower everyday people to seek their own answers. Just as the invention of photography was instrumental to the rise of credible print journalism, digital photography is leading a new wave of amateur reporting -- but we see this as only the first step. As technology plays a greater role in the democratic process, today's citizens need to make informed decisions based on data they know to be true -- because they collected it themselves. Use Civic Information Starter Kits to tell your environmental story, and make useable data for changing minds. 

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

Civic Information Starter Kits are open hardware and software packages for citizen-led environmental data collection supported by a “Small Data” platform for analysis and advocacy.

Where are you located?

Boston, MA; New York, NY; Asheville, NC; New Orleans, LA; San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. Email from Knight Foundation
Rebecka's profile photo
entry submitted by: Rebecka Chall
March 18, 2013, 04:21PM
114 views 6 comments 8 applause Applaud

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March 18, 2013, 07:50PM
I love this. Would you be providing an open API for your data and making that available for free?

This could be a great collaboration if you could tie-in with K-12 Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Mathematics (STEAM) classrooms. Students could crunch the data and make contributions to real-life environmental issues. Great way to tie them into our planet, science and collaboration.

This would also be a great data source for activists and advocacy groups working on local environmental issues. They could mash this data with all types of datasets.
Adam Griffith's reply to Jerry Hall's comment
March 19, 2013, 10:18AM
Hi Jerry - we agree that data mashups would be great!

I'm not sure about an API, but our spatial data are currently available for download at publiclaboratory.org/archive in a variety of formats and our spectral data is available in JSON, CSV, and XML formats from our spectralworkbench.org site.

Also, we have an education working group and have applied for several STEM related grants recently. We are currently working on our K-12 activities such as this one: http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2013/03/how-public-lab-creates-memorable-field-trips-for-students072.html
Jeff Warren's reply to Jerry Hall's comment
March 28, 2013, 02:12PM
Yeah Jerry - actually we already have provided an API for the spectral data: http://publiclaboratory.org/wiki/spectral-workbench-api and plan to do so for all our tools as we release new ones. Also as Adam pointed out, all data from our community is available in standard formats and under open licenses.

A lot of teachers have gotten the kits -- they're definitely a core demographic!
Jerry Hall's reply to Jerry Hall's comment
March 28, 2013, 02:28PM
Even more exciting then Jeff! Sounds like a great program!
March 27, 2013, 04:13PM
great article on public media collecting their own data-- http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/03/the-cicadas-are-coming-wnycs-tracker-is-the-latest-sign-of-the-rise-of-sensor-news-networks/

Although NPR's take is more sensor-focused than Public Lab, it reiterates the shared drive to collect data to verify government sources or create data about environmental conditions that have never been documented.

Quotable quotes--
Keefe: "We’re trying to go into this arena of independent sensors built and run by a crowd to collect information that might not otherwise be available. We’re creating our own data set."

Moradi: “We used to have to scrape data or FOIA it,” he said. “Then we moved into this era of open data where we asked people to release their data in machine-readable formats to spare us that clean up. We’re moving into this era now where data is coming from everywhere.”
March 19, 2013, 12:20AM
This is super awesome. I love what you guys do. Also, I love the concept of "Small Data". On a similar note, there is a freenode channel called "small data" that my friend Max started. Check it out, you'll find likeminded folks there :)
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