Public Lab Research note

Research Plan

by Kaya9804 | February 12, 2013 20:39 12 Feb 20:39 | #5959 | #5959

Hello Fellow Plotters,

My name is Kaya Simmons and I am a freshmen at Northeastern University. Recently, Professor Sara Wylie, (another PLOTS-Boston member), and I won a research grant studying communities that are economically stigmatized by the current politics of science, and the health issues these communities face because of such policies. Our goal is the create a successful DIY thermal fishing bob, test its accuracy near the power plant in Pilgrim, MA, and document my progress as the project develops.
is the project plan and proposal, along with the itemized budget for the project.

Jeff, I would like to discuss this at the meeting Feb 20th if that is ok.

I welcome any comments, questions, recommendations and feedback on the research plan.


Toward a Sociology of Citizen Science: Participatory Public Design of Low-cost Thermal Imaging Tools.


Everything in our biophysical environment gives off heat, whether it is the air, a body of water, or any living organism. Environmental Scientists are now trying to use thermal imaging as a tool to measure heat as a means of collecting data. For example, scientists are trying to measure the increase of temperature in water caused by pollution by using thermal imaging. 1 However, thermal technology is expensive, and unless a group has proper funding, using thermal imaging is not an option (Douglas 2012). Historically technology development, particularly within the sciences, has been geared toward “big science” within the military, universities and for profit companies. The expense of research tools such as thermal imaging prevents their use by low-income communities. With low cost thermal imaging, these areas can potential discover dangers that are hidden to the naked eye, such as a water leak or the presence of mold behind walls.2 First I will experiment with prototyping an affordable, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tool for thermal imaging. Second I will study its use by a community organization through ethnographic participant observation. Third I will document my research in a final paper for Social Movements class. Subsequently, I will work with Dr. Wylie to publish material from this project and leverage this research into CO-OP opportunities with community organizations that are interested in low cost thermal imaging. I hypothesize that by creating an accurate, lost cost, DIY tools for thermal imaging, underserved marginalized communities, who are often on the front line of emerging environmental and health issues, will have the opportunity to investigate their environment to gather previously inaccessible thermal data.


Thermal imaging was developed for military use in the late 1950’s and 1960’s to make images of the heat radiated by humans.3 The first ever thermal imaging camera was created by the company FLIR Systems in 1958. Current thermal image cameras are used to identify dangerous situations in near or complete darkness. Marines use thermal imaging to spot enemy forces in the dark, while fire fighters use the cameras to detect fires behind walls or other obstacles.4 Thermal imaging can also be used for more mundane activities such as identifying insulation problems in homes and mold.5 Although these tools are highly effective, they are highly expensive. Even community fire departments that do not receive enough funding apply for grants for cameras (Waters, 2012). Some cameras can go for as much as $4,000.6 Recently, artists, community organizations and hackers have been experiment with constructing low cost tools for thermal imaging. In 2011 Public Laboratory, a non-profit, open source hardware and software community that develops low cost environmental monitoring tools (cofounded by Dr. Wylie), began working on affordable ways to make thermal images.7 Public Lab members are able to build research projects collectively by uploading research notes, results and instructions for others to create their own technology from home (Dosemagen et. al. 2011). My project builds on work by Public Lab. Particularly the work of Eymund Diegel a Public Lab member, from my own neighborhood in Brooklyn who is interested in using thermal imaging to locate sewage inflows into the Gowanus Canal, an infamous EPA superfund site known for its high level of pollutants (Berger, 2010). Diegel prototyped a thermal fishing boat which indicates changes in subsurface water temperature by changing the color of lights atop a floating platform that can be moved with a fishing rod. It costs approximately $80 dollars and he has not yet perfected or tested his design.8 I will create my own thermal fishing boat prototype and measure its effectiveness by working with an environmental group in the Boston Area: Cape Cod Baywatch. Cape Cod Baywatch is a relatively new volunteer organization focused on preserving the marine life in Cape Cod Bay, specifically near Pilgrim, MA.9 Their Campaign Coordinator is interested in measuring thermal pollution released from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant and approached Public Laboratory for help with this project.


Throughout February, I will be building the prototype thermal fishing boat. In order to do so I will learn about the open source Arduino circuit board and basic programming designed by Diegel and Public Lab. Once the prototype is complete, I will test it locally be comparing its readings to an analog thermometer and record its accuracies. To share my research I will document my success and failures as I experiment on Public Lab. Public lab will become a forum where people can give suggestions and tips as I go along. In late February, Ms. Vale, Prof. Wylie and I will boat to the channel near the Pilgrim Power Plant and attempt to detect whether water close to the plant is warmer than water further away. We will record temperatures from different distances of the plant to see how warm water is traveling from the plant. Once the experiment is complete, I will refine my prototype with any adjustments that will make it more effective. Once I have my research, I will post my findings onto Public Lab and create a how-to video guide on how I built my prototype so others can easily learn. Once the semester ends, I will travel to New York and record temperatures on the Gowanus Canal. After posting that research onto Public Lab and once I get a grasp of constructing thermal fishing bob’s, I will be able to give workshops to those interested in making their own.

Sociological and Personal Significance:

Recent sociology of science and environmental sociology has documented the “regimes of imperceptibility” around environmental health issues experienced by marginalized, low-income communities (Murphy 2004, Allen 2003). The expense and lack of access to environmental monitoring tools contributes to the imperceptibility to environmental health issues. In this project I will experiment with and document the results of an alternative mode of “citizen science” or “civic science”, which draw on digital media, open source licenses and critical making to develop alternative tools and public forums for scientific research that aim to make environmental hazards more perceptible (Fortun 2005, Bholer 2008, Ratto 2011, Juris 2008). I will investigate “civic science” as means of transforming who can study environmental issues and how they study them (Dosemagen et. al. 2011, Wylie forthcoming). Through participant observation, I will document the use of Thermal Imaging by Cape Cod Baywatch and Gowanus Canal Conservancy in order to study the link between DIY tools and effective environmental advocacy (Ottinger 2009). Additionally I will build my own skills in this area and develop a proficiency in Thermal Imaging which I hope to leverage into further COOP opportunities with organizations interested in learning how to perform their own low-cost thermal imaging. If successful, I will also post how-to videos on the Public Lab website so that anyone can easily access, I plan to begin such outreach with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy in the summer of 2012, an organization in my home community of Brooklyn, New York.


1 Thermal imaging is on the rise for environmental sciences. ( engineering/thermal-imaging-on-the-rise.html0.

2 The dangers thermal imaging can detect behind walls. (

3 The history of the development of thermal technology (

4 ibid for military uses and helpful uses for thermal imaging in law enforcement: ( php

5 Use of Thermal Imaging to track mold.

6 The average cost of a thermal camera from the leading company Flir (

7 The online, open-sourced forum used to build prototype, find areas to test my prototype. (http://

8 The sketches of the prototype being built.

9 Organization determined to preserve marine life around Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant. (

References Cited:

Allen, Barbara L. 2003. Uneasy Alchemy Citizens and Experts in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor Disputes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Berger, Joseph. 2010. “Grand Plan for a Toxic Site Is Scorned and Celebrated.” The New York Times: N.Y. Region. Oct. 8th.

Bholer, Megan. 2008. Digital Media and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dosemagen, Shannon, Jeff Warren, & Sara Wylie. 2011 "Grassroots Mapping: Creating a participatory map-making process centered on discourse.” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest: Issue 8- Grassroots Modernism- Dec. 1st.
 Fortun, Kim and Michael Fortun. 2005. Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology. American Anthropologist 107 (1): 43-54.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Murphy, Michelle. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Politics of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience and Women Workers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ottinger, Gwen. 2009. "Epistemic Fence lines: Air Monitoring Instruments and Expert-Resident Boundaries."(pdf) Spontaneous Generations 3(1): 55 - 67.

Ratto, Matt. 2011. Critical Making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life. The Information Society 27(4): 252-260.

Waters, Amanda. 2012. “Fire department receives grants for cameras.” The Mint Hill Times. Oct. 12th.

Wylie, Sara, Matt Ratto and Kirk Jalbert Eds. Forthcoming, The Information Society, “Critical Making” Special Forum Issue. Contributed paper: “Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science: Open-Source Development of Tools for Grassroots Science and STS”, Sara Wylie and Shannon Dosemagen


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