Strengthening community: PLOTS barn raising 2012

In the spirit of the barn raising tradition, in which people from a community get together to collectively erect a structure, repair or improve it , the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) had their second annual Barn Raising event in Cocodrie, Louisiana. From the 2nd to the 4th of November enthusiasts, technologists, inventors, community organisers, environmental researchers and activists gathered at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) to learn from each other, exchange and discuss  ideas, challenges, experiences, build and test new things or improve existing tools or techniques.

Two types of olive oil seen through UV light

Raising the barn

The weekend was packed with hands-on activities, discussions and much ludic food making and eating. The first day was dedicated to getting to know each other, our interests and backgrounds. In a peculiar exercise we got to know each other using the space enclosure within the semi-circularly arranged tables to wonder around on an imaginary map to tell the story of our life, experiences and interests. We knew now where we’d been and could now know where we wanted to go – ideal for planning the weekend’s unconference sessions: 18 discussions and activities were pinned to the wall. These reflected both the current needs and future directions of PLOTS and were scheduled around set lunch hour lectures. And you do not visit LUMCON without taking a tour of the surrounding wetlands in a canoe or kayak of your choice. We learnt about seasonal changes in vegetation and wildlife as well as how that can be better observed and understood in aerial photography, taken with balloon or kite mapping techniques. The purpose of this field trip was also practical: get soil samples for testing the DIY PLOTS spectrometer and to connect with the surrounding environment.  Later that day we discussed the development plans for a PLOTS K-12 mapping curriculum for schools in the US and the difference between doing citizen science and civic science, an interesting discussion on which I shall expand on in an upcoming post. The last activity of the first day, led by Mathew, involved Kite Making, where we tested the DIY instructions manual for a new Delta kite >$10 prototype.

Kayaking in the wetlands surrounding LUMCOM

Saturday morning began early with yoga or running for some, followed by a convivial breakfast provided by LUMCON. In the first session Stewart Long gave an overview of the PLOTS MapKnitter and Photoshop with strategies and advice on process and techniques for DIY map-making. I then joined the awaited session on the PLOTS spectrometer, where Jeffrey Warren explained the challenges and opportunities of building and using this new addition to the PLOTS DIY tool repertoire. In a following hands-on session we tested the soil samples collected the previous day and different olive oil samples. We used both a foldable cardboard-based spectrometer for Android smartphones as well as a countertop spectrometer. After fun in the lab we headed out to fly our kites and map the LUMCON facilities and surrounding area.  After a ‘free-time’ reconnoitring the Cocodrie delta, I returned to learn from Scott Eustis about the efforts of the Gulf Restoration Network on coastal wetland environments through photogrametry. The day closed nicely with the discussion of ‘Barnstars’ for PLOTS. These are awards used to acknowledge the efforts and contributions of members of the community, following the barn raising metaphor.

Flying our new Delta kite >$10 prototype with camera attached

Sunday morning had parallel sessions on ‘Infrared photography’ and on the ‘Ethics of funding decisions’ followed by a session dedicated to ‘Working with communities’ where different PLOTS members shared insights on lessons learnt, ongoing challenges and opportunities. I lead the following session, discussing ‘Ethics of practice’ and importance of having guiding principles that serve to guide, acknowledge and protect the community. The final sessions explored the concept of ‘starting a PLOTS chapter’, ‘measuring the effectiveness of DIY science tools’ and developing a ‘getting started with PLOTS booklet’.

The PLOTS community is mostly web-based but this barn raising event consolidated ideas, strengthened bonds and created new relations, which can hopefully continue to be nurtured via the PLOTS website.

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