Punk Science

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Categories: Activism


As I was preparing this blog post, a news item came across the “crawler” at the bottom of my screen indicating that U.S. President Trump had just “unveiled a controversial plan Thursday to permit drilling in all U.S. continental shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic”.

This news just underlines the main point of this post, which is this: when governments remove funding for research, nonchalantly and haphazardly relax regulations, and in general ignore scientific facts (or – even worse - the seeking of those facts in terms of research and analysis), it may be incumbent to us as individuals to take on some of the burden ourselves.

This is why I was fascinated by an article called “Punk Science” in the 23-Dec-2017 edition of The Economist.

The article starts with the story of Max Liboiron, a Canadian geographer, who was working on monitoring the plastic debris content of the waters off of the coast of Newfoundland – when the government passed legislation that weakened environmental protection and specifically cut the budget for this monitoring.  Ms. Liboiron developed a tool she called “BabyLegs” which is a pair of baby stockings  which can be affixed to a cut plastic bottle and towed behind boats as a way to collect debris samples.  Below: a photo of the inventor and her BabyLegs, the unit in service, and the inexpensive ingredients/tools to create them.

 Using these BabyLegs, and using Liboiron’s Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, the data can be gathered for literally .08% of the cost of using the Manta Trawls that were being used by scientists via the funded program.  The point is that this makes science, data, and interest in this effort more accessible and public.

You may not live near the ocean or be interested in plastic debris off the coast of Newfoundland.  But everyone drinks water and/or wine, and/or beer…  and that brings me to the next part of this post.

Included in the article was a section on how ‘crowd science’ determined the true scope of the damage from the Deepwater Horizon incident, via PublicLab, a New Orleans NGO which helps individuals come together to investigate environmental concerns.   Here is PublicLab’s mission statement:

Public Lab is a community where you can learn how to investigate environmental concerns. Using inexpensive DIY techniques, we seek to change how people see the world in environmental, social, and political terms.

 In this case they used software called MapKnitter to assemble photos from helium balloons, old digital cameras and smartphones (see photo below) into photographs more detailed than those available from Google Earth

Another example of a PublicLab effort is the ability to create spectrometers for pennies.  A spectrometer can be used to determine the chemical composition of light – including light passed through a liquid, such as drinking water, wine, or beer – and to find pollutants or contaminants in that liquid, such as lead or mercury.

Inspired by the article, I actually created a small project for myself – build the referenced spectrometer in the article and test it out.  The project was on time (15 minutes) under budget (effectively 0) and met scope (working spectrometer)!

Below is a picture of my spectrometer, and an example of a reading on a CFL bulb (the ones that look like a soft-serve ice-cream cone), which shows that the CFL’s main chemical signature is mercury.  You can compare my reading (look where there are very bright spots) with the chemical signature of mercury.

Individuals could use such a spectrometer to ‘crowdsource’ data on (for example) drinking water, to look for lead in their water, for example.  Instructions for making the spectrometer can be had by clicking on the image below.

Reading this as a citizen of planet Earth, perhaps one with an interest in science, I hope this ‘tickles’ the creative side of your brain… maybe you will take on one of these mini-projects, or do it collaboratively with your science-minded kids or nieces or nephews.

Reading this as a project manager, I hope that you’ll take away the idea that your stakeholders may be a source of ‘crowdsourced’ data for you in ways you may not have imagined before.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: January 04, 2018 02:33 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Creativity is about being able to see associations when others couldn’t. It's all about connecting random ideas and facts in creating something unique and different..
Thank you Richard for sharing Max and your creative ideas.

Interesting article, thanks.

Informative post, thanks for sharing.

Thanks, Richard. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Nice Post.
Interesting project!

Excellent demonstration on how we can do nice things with simple things

Interesting. I have gotten myself a project will keep you updated

@chris - I will want to hear about it, thanks for participating!

Thank you for the valued information!

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