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Interview with Liz Barry, Public Lab

The Citizen Science Association is re-energizing a series of interviews with citizen scientists and citizen science enthusiasts. This month, Çiğdem Adem interviews Liz Barry, Director of Community Development at Public Lab. Liz is a landscape architect and organizer interested in collaborative environments. Currently, when she is not hoisting cameras up on balloons (with Public Lab) or hugging trees with tape measures (with TreeKIT), Liz teaches geospatial workflows for urban designers at Columbia University in New York, US.
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Liz, how did your interest in citizen science begin?

I have always been interested in the relationship between people and their environments. My previous corporate work as a landscape architect and urban designer meant that I drew up plans for environments where other people lived. One time, I was on a team to terraform a bit of ocean where no one lived. It was a no-brainer that a more sustainable approach to environmental design would include actual people who actually lived somewhere and had a vested interest in the long-term outcomes. Once I shifted to working in community development with more transparent decision-making, it did not take long to notice that local knowledge contained deeper insights than externally completed studies, and that local goals differed from business sector goals. Further, when we went looking for best practices for managing our highly impacted urban environments, we found that rarely was enough known about any given spot to determine what the appropriate management should actually be.

Why do you prefer the term community science to citizen science?

I often wonder why “citizen” is the modifier we choose to indicate, celebrate, and encourage broader participation, when the word indicates legal status and many people exposed to environmental health injustice are already disenfranchised in some way. To re-situate scientific inquiry in a tradition of inclusive community organizing, we prefer the term community science.

As Public Laboratory or Grassroots mapping you try to develop interesting and useful alternative methods and processes for research. How did it all begin?

It really took a lot of people coming together to create a big enough tent with room for everyone. People who brought careers’ worth of experience and deep relationships in community organizing, hardware and software development, media, geographic technology and design. The goal – of democratizing science so that people can research environmental health – continues to attract a growing community that is diverse, skilled and heartfelt.
In the second half of the 2000s, our low-cost, community-oriented, and fun tools quickly got a lot of attention – “wow, big flying things!” – as the nascent Grassroots Mapping community updated 19th century balloon and kite aerial photography with cheap digital cameras and simple web software. In one early example, informally urbanizing communities in Lima, Peru used this method to produce maps of land tenure claims for negotiating with banks and government agencies. In May 2010, members of the Grassroots Mapping community joined with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to monitor the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf Coast of the United States. During the spill, there was an information blackout for residents of the coastal region, as well as the rest of the world. No one was accurately tracking what was happening on the ground. In response a group of concerned residents, environmental advocates, designers, and social scientists lofted “community satellites,” made from balloons, kites and digital cameras, over the spill to collect real time data about its impact. Local citizens collected the images, and through a newly created open source platform, contributors stitched over 100,000 aerial images into maps of the coastline before, during, and after the oil spread. These high-resolution maps were featured by BBC and New York Times, among others, allowing residents to speak their truth about what was going on in the Gulf Coast.
The success of the grassroots mapping effort galvanized the group to found Public Lab as a new research and social space for the development of low-cost tools for community-based environmental monitoring and assessment.

What are your objectives in developing this alternative processes and methods?

“Using inexpensive DIY techniques, we seek to change how people see the world in environmental, social, and political terms. Our goal is to increase the ability of underserved communities to identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns.”
We also want to have fun outside, expand our abilities to perceive the environment, equip ourselves to better manage it and connect with others who envision and work to create healthy environments.

What is the key for this model to work?

It is the diversity of folks who bring their interests, concerns, expertise, and enthusiasm to the Public Lab community that makes this model work. There are local residents, members of the business community, elected officials, scientists, engineers, policy scholars, lawyers, campaign strategists etc. It requires a lot of time from a lot of people to pursue an environmental concern through the phases of study design, data collection/ analysis/ presentation, outreach, developing relationships with regulators, and more, to get all the way to a resolution. With such varied membership, it does take friendliness and patience from all sides to have a conversation. We cannot assume that any given jargon or point of reference, from spectroscopy terms to local history, is widely shared. Out of all this, our culture emerges.

You avoid the recent trend towards “crowd harvesting”. You reject a model of citizen science where participants are limited to categorize data or log in observations. Can you explain why?

I think it is fun and meaningful to contribute data to OpenStreetMap or participate in a BioBlitz (and I do), but what about when I have a concern about my own environment? What do I do when I want to answer my own questions? What about when a whole bunch of people have a whole bunch of questions they want to answer?
When it comes to asking questions about contested environmental health and pollution issues, the people who are most affected will ask the most pointed questions. We have previously written this as part of a concept we call the “full data lifecycle.” Additionally, I lean heavily on success stories from the last hundred years of communities who addressed complex, ill-defined problems by marshaling expert assistance to structure research to inform local organizing to resolve issues in accordance with local goals and values. That is kind of a mouthful. The model that has emerged in Public Lab combines these traditions of community organizing and Participatory Action Research with more recent modes of online commons-based peer production. Ha, I guess that is pretty jargon-y. Thank goodness for Jane Addams, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Paolo Freire, and Miles Horton or I might not believe that this was even possible.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Well, thank you for reading! For more information or to get involved, visit and say hi!
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Çigdem AdemÇiğdem is an environmental sociologist who worked on nature conservation projects in Turkey implementing participatory methods to work with local communities. While working at the European Environment Agency on lay, local, traditional knowledge and citizen science, she initiated a citizen science newsletter that included interviews with citizen scientists. She is enthusiastic to continue with the interviews at the Citizen Science Association with the hope that they are inspirational to the readers. She tries to reflect the diversity across the world and across various themes.

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