SciStarter Unites Citizen Science with DIY Community

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A painter cannot paint without brushes. Similarly, a scientist cannot work without tools.

PLOTS, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, is dead set on carrying out a mission to equip people with the proper tools for research. SciStarter and PLOTS are working together to help connect PLOTS tools and innovations to the growing community of citizen scientists and formal researchers. We had an opportunity to speak with Shannon Dosemagen, the Director of Outreach and Partnerships for PLOTS, about this exciting initiative in the world of citizen science.

“[PLOTS] is a community that incorporates a diverse set of participants from various backgrounds including social and natural sciences, community organizing, technology and design.”

The organization’s aim is to include community members in every step of the research process, from problem identification, to tool design & development, to data collection, to analysis and advocacy. It began in May 2010 during the infamous BP oil spill along the Gulf Coast. Two existing groups – the Grassroots Mapping Community and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade – joined forces and implemented the use of a balloon mapping kit to monitor environmental conditions along the coast. (The data have even made it as far as the New York Times!) From this initial group of collaborators came the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. Since then, with the help of Shannon Dosemagen, the group grew to over 1,000 people on and offline across the U.S.

Balloon-mapping kit
Balloon mapping kits.

What makes PLOTS unique is that they recognize the importance of making scientific tools accessible and affordable at the community level. Whether it’s a spectrometer or an infrared camera, PLOTS believes in democratizing scientific tools on a grassroots level. This year, they hope to expand the toolkit of open source software tools that they offer and will be adding two brand new projects to SciStarter’s Project Finder:

  1. A low-cost thermal imaging system
  2. A data collection system for hydrogen sulfide detection

PLOTS ran two very successful Kickstarter campaigns (funded by remote supporters and fellow citizen scientists) to create tools that their citizen scientists would end up using. The initial aerial mapping Kickstarter ran in spring of 2010 and raised approximately $8,300. The Kickstarter for balloon mapping kits in January of 2012 raised approximately $35,000.

The current Kickstarter campaign for a DIY spectrometer is supported by 1000+ backers who aren’t necessarily from the PLOTS community but instead are people who are learning about PLOTS for the first time.

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Dosemagen calls this a “reversal of traditional practices” wherein citizen scientists are not simply pawns for data collection; instead, they are able to take ownership over environmental problems they have identified. The many tools that PLOTS offers allow room for citizen scientists to discover new research directions.

“Having accessible, available tools allows us all to think through the process of data gathering and also allows us to work in areas that we have personal connections to,” says Dosemagen. True to this sentiment, other citizen science projects have leverage the use of mobile technology for citizen science research.

“While these big Kickstarters have been central to our organizational growth, we hope to see crowd funding of kits become a routine part of our development process, and not just at the stage where a product is ready for retail.”

Garnering support and attention from key players in the growing open-source information and resources movement, such as the Knight Foundation and MIT’s Center for Civic Media, PLOTS is just getting started. We can expect great things from this organization in the future, and not just because of the tools they are developing for citizen science. Rather, it’s about one very important thing. PLOTS understands that’s it’s not just about the science and the data, but it’s also about the community that grows around the scientific research and finding collaborative ways that we can contribute to science, together.

Join PLOTS today by signing up on their website and contributing to their movement!
Stay tuned for more exciting news from SciStarter as it relates to strengthening connections between DIYers and citizen scientists!

Categories: Citizen Science

About the Author


Lily Bui

Although she holds dual non-science bachelors’ degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine, Lily has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. A daughter of an engineer and an accountant who also happen to be a photographer and musician, respectively, Lily grew up on the nexus between science and art. Lily has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served a year in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter in California; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. She currently works with WGBH-TV Boston and Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns (mostly to entertain herself). // Tweets @dangerbui