In our new political era of disinformation, climate-change denial, and ever-powerful industry lobbyists, unbiased science and research are under serious political attack. Underfunded agency pages have been wiped clean of environmental information, scientists have been barred from EPA chief advisory boards, and most recently, crucial public-health studies have been excluded from decision-making processes under the guise of “transparency.”
Meanwhile, a huge hole in federal accountability for our air, water, and land has left countless low-income communities with unsolved lead-contamination issues, stalled Superfund cleanups, coal ash polluting their waterways, and other foreseeable but heart-wrenching consequences of the federal regulatory rollback. With science policy and the data that fuel it under administrative attack, both the world of science at large and communities on the front lines of environmental catastrophes are losing what direct avenues they have left to hold the government responsible for a sustainable and safe future.
This is nothing new for grassroots groups, who have struggled for decades to get policy-makers to pay attention to local environmental-equity issues. But now, a growing movement of coders, activists, scientists, and organizers are radically breaking from the status quo by creating tools that put the ability to collect data and monitor environmental conditions in the hands of community members, ushering in a new front in the environmental resistance: community science.
“If we don’t have data coming from people who are supposedly enforcing and regulating for us—protecting our communities—then we need to figure out how we can take that accountability in our hands,” said Shannon Dosemagen, the executive director of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a community organization that aims to democratize science by addressing environmental issues from the ground up. And while the cutbacks on the federal and state level can’t be filled in by concerned volunteers, community science has many advantages over traditional, top-down scientific research.
Utilizing new technologies like cloud-based aerial mapping, DIY monitoring and engineering kits, and crowdsourcing software, Public Lab and groups like it are building inclusive and innovative new coalitions, prying the work of environmental monitoring research from the grips of politicized agencies and institutional experts and putting it into the hands of community members themselves. It’s a radical new way of doing science, and one uniquely suited to our era of rapid technological advancement and political impasse.
Dosemagen, a community organizer, Jeff Warren, a cartographer, and Liz Barry, now the group’s director of community development, and four other cofounders conceived of Public Lab after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion spurred collective innovation out of tragic necessity. The largest marine oil spill in history and the catastrophic environmental disaster that ensued—wildlife covered in thick toxic sludge, glistening slicks leaking into vital fisheries and tributaries—came with an information blackout for residents along coastal Louisiana who weren’t getting clear answers about the extent of the damage in their backyards. In the community’s eyes, it seemed no one was accurately tracking what was happening on the ground.