Citizen Science and the Spectrometer: A Love Story
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A couple of years ago, activist and DIY scientist Jeffrey Yoo Warren launched a Kickstarter project called Grassroots Mapping the Gulf Oil Spill, which aimed to provide citizens with basic, easy-to-use mapping kits for documenting the aftermath of the gulf oil spill on their own. The project was a success, attracting a ton of attention, generating a vast body of data and imagery, and even spawning another Kickstarter project by one of its participants. (In a post he authored for PBS's Idea Lab around that time, Warren noted that "...before this kind of work (or play) seems exciting and relevant, it has to come with a sense of ownership." He was remarking on the subject matter to be mapped, but he could have been referencing the project itself.)
If the Grassroots Mapping project was considered an experiment to test public interest in participatory citizen science, the results would be easy to declare: success! Now, Warren has set his sights on another realm of the scientific world with an historically high barrier to entry — the spectrometer.
Used by scientists to identify unknown materials by measuring which colors they absorb, the standard spectrometer is widely used, incredibly useful, and — ech! — prohibitively expensive. But the DIY version conceptualized by Public Lab, an organization Warren co-founded, is available for the fractional cost of $35, and consists of nothing more than black card paper, velcro, a clean DVD-R, and a webcam. In a breakdown of the tools functionality, Warren explains how the DVD acts as a prism: "...when light enters, the different wavelengths of light are bent to different degrees, forming a rainbow — a spectrum." Neat!
From there, the potential for inspired application is limitless. As inspiration, Warren has been posting a series of experiments to his project blog, like espresso spectra testing at a coffee shop. (We're also intrigued by this post on wine.) Beyond simple data gathering, these use cases demonstrate how the spectrometer could foster important, structural changes to existing processes. Take this example, where a brewery just outside of Boston explores using spectrometry to streamline yeast counting processes. Another potential use, one that harkens back to Warren's original Grassroots Mapping project, is monitoring toxicity in oil spill residue or coal tar.
The group will also create open source software for collecting, analyzing, and comparing the spectral data of its users, and, in an effort to maximize their potential community, have crafted an extra cheap, experimental version of the kit that attaches to a phone:
With any luck, endeavors like the DIY Spectrometry Kit will soon be igniting a whole new generation of citizen scientists. Check out the rest of the project here.