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Crowdsourcing Data to Tackle Pollution
Kite-balloons and spectrometers - how community activists use DIY technology to investigate environmental polluters.
Director: Dan Boaden
Producer: Dan Boaden
April 2015

In 2010, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico leaking an estimated 134 million gallons of crude oil and four million pounds of natural gas into surrounding marine habitat. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster as it was later known, was the largest oil spill of its kind, killing and injuring countless marine animals, shorebirds, sea turtles and other wildlife.


At the time of the oil spill, locals accused BP of 'information blackout' and were concerned that they were not able to document the true impact of the incident on their environment.

"People would come across residues on the beach or dead fish and animals," explains Jeff Warren who witnessed the aftermath of the oil spill. "So we were literally googling 'how do you identify (polluting) oil'," he adds.


In response, a small group of mapping enthusiasts got together and started using low-cost balloon and kites to take aerial images of the spill and also to test samples using DIY spectrometers. And so Public Lab was born.


Holding up a sample collected at the oil spill site in Louisiana, Jeff Warren, a founding member of Public Lab explains that the idea was to "come up with a cheap and quick technique to analyse this without having to rely on expensive testing or a laboratory."


Today, Public Lab has grown into a global movement that is creating and fine-tuning a series of inexpensive tools that can be used to monitor and assess environmental hazards. It had even helped gather evidence used to bring polluters to justice.

About 'earthrise'

'earthrise' is an award-winning series exploring solutions to the environmental challenges we face today.


The programme takes an upbeat look at ecological, scientific, technological and design projects all around the world, from a group of Dutch architects who design stunning buildings made from waste materials, to an ingenious project that has dramatically cut rhino poaching on a South African game reserve.


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