Meet Brooklyn's cohort of environmentalist hackers - Brooklyn


Jul. 12, 2017 1:00 pm

Meet Brooklyn’s cohort of environmentalist hackers

The NYC chapter of Public Lab is behind several Gowanus Canal restoration efforts — and it's making a big push to open its toolkits to the public.
An aerial image of the Gowanus Canal taken by Public Lab members.

An aerial image of the Gowanus Canal taken by Public Lab members.

(Courtesy photo)

Brooklyn, as any regular reader of this site knows, is home to a fast-growing, increasingly influential tech community. It is also home to two Superfund sites: in other words, places so contaminated with hazardous substances that they’ve received special designation from the Environmental Protection Agency.

So how do those two attributes intersect? Enter Public Lab, a community science nonprofit that brings together residents interested in addressing environmental issues and experts who help them carry out environmental investigations.

Public Lab was founded in response to the catastrophic 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in which volunteers used aerial mapping to photograph areas that were barred to journalists. Since then, the group has launched chapters worldwide, and one of its most active has been here in New York City.

Namely, the NYC Public Lab chapter has helped map and monitor pollution in the Gowanus Canal, which was designated a Superfund site in 2010, and even shared its findings with the EPA. The work of Eymund Diegel, who leads the Gowanus project, has been covered widely in the press, including Vice and NewsweekLiz Barry, Public Lab’s director of community development, and Bronwen Densmore, its open hardware community manager, are also based in Brooklyn.

Densmore assumed her position just two months ago, though she’s volunteered with Public Lab for years. Her formal role represents the organization’s push to strengthen its ties to the maker movement in order to spread the word about its work.

Hardware has long played a role in Public Lab’s community engagement. During its first project in the Gulf of Mexico, the group developed a do-it-yourself balloon mapping kit that enables anyone to take aerial photos and raised money for the kit on Kickstarter. Since then, it’s developed other low-cost tools for science investigations: a spectrometer, which is used to identify unknown contaminants, and an infrared photography kit, which is used to measure the health of plants in a particular area.


We caught up with Public Lab Monday night during the group’s monthly videoconference. The topic of the evening was aerial mapping, the application for the group’s first kit. Densmore described the group’s newest kits initiative: last month, under the Kickstarter Gold program, Public Lab launched a fundraising campaign for an improved version of its balloon mapping kit as well as beta versions of two new kits: a mini-balloon kit and a mini-kite kit (which is shaped, whimsically, like an octopus). The mini kits are designed for low-altitude projects, such as capturing photos of a community garden or an outdoor event. With seven days left in the campaign, the group has raised just over $8,000 of its $10,000 goal.

Check out the campaign

“The aerial mapping projects have been a real cornerstone of the stuff that Public Lab does, and so we’re at the point where we’ve been seeing a lot of projects evolve over the years,” Densmore said. “We’re seeing new people come into the community, which is really exciting.”

It turns out that do-it-yourself aerial mapping has some novel applications. Diegel, for instance, is working on mapping a historic battlefield from the American Revolution located within the Gowanus Superfund site. The location, according to his research, may include the burial grounds of soldiers who fought in the Battle of Brooklyn. It also happens to include property now owned by Jared Kushner. Diegel plans to gather documentation, through mapping, to have the site designated as a federally protected area under the American Battlefield Protection Program.

“We’re calling it ‘Make Gowanus Great Again,'” he joked.

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