The Challenge5500 followers
Civic Information Starter Kits: open hardware for government accountabilityIn 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.
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