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Public Lab Research note

Common low-cost technique limitations and strategies for impact

by gretchengehrke , warren | September 29, 2016 20:12 29 Sep 20:12 | #13508 | #13508

With an environmental and environmental health focus, many people coming to Public Lab may be looking for techniques to help them address an immediate and sensitive situation. Since we are an open community actively developing tools and techniques, especially of low-cost and do-it-yourself nature, we want to be sure to adequately communicate tool and technique limitations so that everyone is on the same page.

We’re working on updating tool wikis and developing a system for ensuring that pages are up to date with the most current information about technique abilities and limitations, development goals, etc. We also want to express some general expectations around Public Lab techniques here.

Consider Public Lab methods to be experimental prototypes by default

These activities are part of the research and development process of low-cost, do-it-yourself techniques. The primary development goals involve accessibility for a wide variety of people, both financially and educationally. Often, these tools and techniques are not expected to perform as accurately or precisely as professional tools and techniques, and you should consider them to be experimental unless otherwise marked. Public Lab celebrates exploration and asking questions, and is a place to try new things and publicly document your experiences. Thus, expect many stages of exploration and experimentation to be present here, and refer to research area wiki pages to learn about the capabilities and limitations of techniques.

Low-cost tool strategies

Although in an ideal world, scientific methods and equipment would be accessible to anyone who needed to use them, for many reasons, producing low-cost, open source methods which perform identically to existing methods is a challenging goal. For many low-cost, open source tools such as those in Public Lab, even if the techniques have achieved a mature status, they may not be intended to ever be as accurate or precise as professional equipment -- perhaps they hope to achieve lower costs with a loss of precision, or perhaps they are designed to provide early indicators or warnings, not concrete evidence or proof. However, we hope they can enable people to engage in science and environmental monitoring, and to collect data that is relevant to them using highly accessible public techniques.

Strategies for working with more limited techniques

Whether techniques are not yet ready, or whether they're intended for a less precise or difficult type of data collection, there may still be ways they can play an important role in environmental monitoring:

  • Developing simpler, lower cost methods which offer initial indications, not proof -- to raise questions which could lead to more rigorous testing
    • especially powerful in “data deserts,” areas without governmental monitoring data
  • Employing more accessible, lower cost methods alongside more rigorous methods in order to calibrate and then extrapolate and improve overall spatial and temporal data resolution
  • Providing opportunities to learn by making, increasing people’s science literacy and perhaps engendering scientific and environmental interests and awareness
  • ...and more! Add yours in the comments!

Using the above strategies relies on having a clear understanding and acknowledgement of the limitations and intended purpose of various techniques, especially when presenting their resulting data. Reach out to discuss data quality and implications, and strategies for integration with other data sets!


While it's important to be really clear on whether a technique is adequate to your needs and goals, there are lots of ways less precise techniques can play a role in monitoring.

And sometimes, as a technique is being refined (as many are on this site), it's capable of an easier form of data collection far before it reaches it's eventual and more ambitious goals. That's why it can be hard to talk about whether something "works" -- it may work for one use, but not for another.

I had a few ideas on why to use more accessible tools even if they're not (yet, or ever) an equal match for more formal techniques:

  1. collecting data at different times/places than official data to highlight its potential blind spots and advocate for a different test design
  2. for use in long-term "trend" monitoring and early warning systems -- for example if you see a sudden spike in a reading, even if you can't be sure what caused it (this is related to the first example)
  3. in outreach, skill-building and training to prepare and refine methods for the upcoming availability of better sensors
  4. to highlight and communicate the need for better monitoring, through public involvement and outreach, and to expose how testing works in order to give the public better insight into testing approaches

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