Beyond Access: Broadening the role of open science hardware in environmental monitoring innovations

Journal of Open HW
5 min readDec 6, 2022
Air monitoring station, Reno, Nevada (Image from Brewbrooks)

Shannon Dosemagen (Open Environmental Data Project) and Alison Parker (Wilson Center Science and Technology Innovation Program)

Low-cost and open science hardware can be a major, and sometimes essential, part of community environmental monitoring efforts (e.g. community and citizen science). For example, Safecast’s network of do-it-yourself (DIY) open source sensors enables community measurement of open air quality data around the world. Open source camera traps developed by the Mammal Web team are used by enthusiasts to monitor wild mammals in Europe. The Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) provides technical assistance and resources, like protocols and low-cost tools, for volunteer water monitoring initiatives in Pennsylvania. For these kinds of initiatives the case is well-made: low-cost tools, whether open source or not, are often the only tools affordable outside the context of science institutions in academia and government, and DIY tools allow non-institutional participants to control all aspects of a research endeavor, from asking questions to developing protocols to building tools.

However, open science hardware has significant potential beyond being low cost alternatives to institutional monitoring equipment. This has been overshadowed by (rightfully) emphasizing the accessible nature of open science hardware combined with an insistence on building suites of accessible tools through differing practices (i.e. DIY, maker, low cost, open hardware). By focusing on the precision of meaning, we can better highlight the potential application of open science hardware in institutional monitoring practices. Within expert communities — and in scientific disciplines and research areas outside of environmental monitoring, we are seeing growing recognition of the power of open science hardware to enhance science of all types, and by all kinds of scientists. For example, RepRap’s 3-D printers contribute to tool libraries for microfluidics prototypers, chemical handling systems, and 3-D microscopes. Open hardware is an integral part of operations at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research. And OpenFlexure is a leader in high precision mechanical positioning and custom microscopy.

In the environmental monitoring space, focusing the conversation on the challenges and opportunities for open hardware in the context of science institutions is proving to be challenging. While hosting the Spring 2022 roundtable conversation on environmental monitoring and open hardware, we — the authors of this post and the conveners of this series — cast our net broadly, inviting an array of representatives from government agencies, “intermediary” organizations, lawyers, technology developers, philanthropists, and researchers that study environmental monitoring and open hardware. Our goal was to convene a conversation that took a broad stance on the role of open science hardware in advancing research priorities and enabling better access to environmental monitoring across the gamut of actors who are part of monitoring efforts. However, although we did touch on this broader spectrum, the conversation continued to turn back to the role of open science hardware for community monitoring.

While open science hardware spreads in other fields and community initiatives, there is huge, yet unrecognized, potential to use these innovative tools to enhance a broader spectrum of research and development related to environmental monitoring. Networks of low-cost environmental sensors allow for increased understanding of spatial and temporal variability and supporting regional and local scale work. However, the use of proprietary sensors is limiting the impact of this shift. As described by Joshua Pearce in the 2020 blog series on open hardware and key messages for public policy, the return on investment for open science hardware is incredibly high when open design allows for replication by other scientists and in other institutions. Open hardware allows scientists to do more with limited budgets and develop custom, yet replicable, scientific tools. For these reasons, it supports multi-sector research collaborations and can actually form a foundation of scientific infrastructure to enable better science.

The role of open science hardware in community monitoring is evident and the last decade has seen significant strides in identifying its opportunities and challenges in environmental monitoring. However, little work has been done to point to the places beyond community monitoring where open hardware is part of the larger open source and open science ecosystem driving U.S. innovation and R&D. So we pose the question: Is now the time to address — and more fully realize — the potential for open science hardware in environmental research in science institutions, in addition to its role in community-led monitoring?

This blog series provides a deeper look into some of the opportunities and challenges for using open science hardware for environmental monitoring by science institutions. As first steps, scoping and advancing each of these issues will support the ecosystem of open science within environmental monitoring. First, the development and use of standards will facilitate multi-sector community conversations. Second, further definition and clarification of the unique opportunities and challenges of related but distinct approaches (e.g. open science hardware, low-cost hardware, and DIY tools) will build domain specific capacity and make a stronger case for each. Third, innovative procurement practices will create opportunities to integrate open hardware tools into environmental monitoring in science institutions, particularly the U.S government, alongside current investment in other open science approaches. Fourth, funding that invests in community collaboration, rather than only new and novel approaches, will advance cultural values around collaboration and openness. Finally, beginning the transition away from legacy data systems will start to build the infrastructure and build community capacity around the use and reuse of environmental data.

The role of open science hardware has incredible promise for environmental monitoring by science institutions, professional scientists, and researchers, in addition to community monitoring, where the case has been well made. Imagine a future where the use of open science hardware by environmental monitoring agencies leads to monitoring practices that are transparent and informative, and where public interaction includes a focus on how to understand and use data resulting from monitoring activities. The role of community would be about working across sectors to contextualize data, and collaborate on interpretation and use, rather than just check government work or fill in gaps. The open science hardware ecosystem is ready for advancement into the landscape of R&D and innovation. Despite the challenges, the opportunities for transforming environmental governance for the long term presents a substantial opportunity.

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Journal of Open HW

Journal of Open Hardware, an Open Access initiative run by the Global Open Science Hardware community and published by Ubiquity Press.