So, once again: what’s all this about?

Infragram was developed by the Public Laboratory for Open Science and Technology (PLOTS), an open community of citizen scientists. Through Do-It-Yourself hardware and open-source software, PLOTS projects aim to democratize the production of scientific knowledge, especially regarding community environmental health. Communities troubled by environmental problems (low air quality or an oil spill, for example) can use low-cost PLOTS tools to redress the imbalance of power that would otherwise keep them in the dark about whether their water is safe to drink or air safe to breathe. Open Science, in other words, can empower underserved communities.

With this goal of civic science in mind, our team wondered:

Can we use PLOTS’s plant-health camera to measure the quality of produce from grocery stores
across Atlanta, perhaps to map produce quality to income disparity across neighborhoods?

Turns out, no, we couldn’t. We hit some epistemological stumbling blocks.

What the Tool Says, and What It Doesn’t

NDVI imaging is an unambiguous indicator of photosynthesis, and high levels of photosynthesis correlate with plant health, but our research group had no botanical or dietetical grounding to make, from this data, any conclusions about how nutritious any given piece of produce was. In other words, our tool could show us that a plant was photosynthesizing, but we had no empirical reason to infer from this anything about nutrition.

So, what did we get from our study? Rather than sociology or dietetics, our study speaks to the tools themselves. As a decentralized DIY project, Infragram needs more documentation, and we provided that in these forms:

  • documentation of whether DIY near-infrared photography can be used to assess produce health (results here)
  • context-specific how-tos for people wishing to replicate our experiment (right here)
  • side-by-side comparison of different NIR filtering methods (click me)
  • tutorial of modding process for Canon A810 on Instructables (click me) and PLOTS wiki
  • lightbox how-to on Instructables (click me)
  • GIMP-compatible plugins (click me, too)

And for our part, we:

  • Gained experience hacking and tinkering
  • Joined a community of citizen scientists

Further Reflections

In the course of our project, some unresolved questions came up:

  • The PLOTS wiki has plenty of information about determining levels of photosynthesis from near-infrared imagery, but very little about what that means specifically, beyond showing the presence of a living plant. Pages such as this one need to be fleshed out by people familiar with the science if we, or anyone, is to speak with any scientific purchase about plant health.
  • What does it mean to use PLOTS projects for bourgeois, consumer uses rather than activist or agricultural uses? For example, what if we use the still-in-development oil testing kit for testing olive oil adulteration instead of testing tarballs and sheens? Is this still “citizen science”?