Open hardware increases civic participation, scientific understanding and shared identity

Workshop at the 2017 Gathering for Open Science Hardware (Image: Shannon Dosemagen, source)

This blog is part of a series on open hardware and key messages for public policy. Read the introduction and access other #OHpolicy blogs here.

By Angela Eaton, Director at Safecast, and Shannon Dosemagen, Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow at Open Environmental Data Project; co-founder, Public Lab.

We, the authors of this post, have been immersed in open communities — Safecast and Public Lab — that have each been pushing at the boundaries of community-centered environmental monitoring for over a decade. Safecast volunteers produced specs and assembly plans for the portable bGeigie monitor, a device that has allowed thousands to take radiation measurements anywhere you can walk, bike, drive, fly, or even sail. It’s been a genuine example of successful public collaboration in and contribution to science across the globe. Public Lab creates open hardware for exploration, from aerial mapping rigs to community microscope kits, that help people think differently about science as a tool in their organizing work.

Regardless of the purpose or application of these tools, our experience has shown that open hardware can be a mechanism to both increase public participation in science and to directly connect the value of science to our daily lives. As interest in applying open hardware as a mechanism for public participation and collaboration in the sciences increases, understanding structural needs and future challenges is essential.

Sustainable open hardware projects have three things in common: the creation and support of a community using formal value systems maintained by codes of conduct; a clear purpose-driven development goal; and finally, licensing which indicates both collective credit and intellectual rights. These three organizing principles have kept open hardware projects influential because of their longevity and ability to “seed” future versions and iterations. With the right policies and funding [1] to create the conditions for collaboration and authentic community participation, open hardware can be a crucial vehicle for cross-sector collaboration. It can create science-centered dialogue, building trust between participants, and positively changing the way we converse around societal issues.

For open hardware’s potential to have the greatest impact, we need to “increase the we.” This requires a shift in how we approach inclusion; rather than “bringing people into the community” we have the opportunity to create porous boundaries between government, industry, and society where the collaborative methods of user-centered and/or locally versioned open hardware impacts hardware development in other sectors. Functionally, this means launching open hardware development projects with supporting documents, design forums, organized data processes, and firmware explanations that a layperson can meaningfully access, understand, and use in their own languages, with tools they already possess, and without a computer science degree.

We also need to create more collaborative routes for people to be involved, because open hardware and the data it creates is critical in addressing the complicated challenges society faces. Scientific hardware is still in large part proprietary, expensive and built for the needs of research and industry. Industry is allowed to self-regulate based on data that they collect. Additionally, there are limits to the capacity and political will necessary for the government to regulate and enforce. Until this shifts, we should think about both hardware creation and data collection as aspects of a right and responsibility to contribute to the data conversation about one’s own life.

To realize the bigger vision of open hardware as impactful for increasing public participation in science and science as a tool to be used in daily life, we provide several recommendations.

Center hardware development processes within diverse communities to meet local needs and priorities of hardware design. Even the most well-conceptualized, collaboratively developed tools are created to meet the needs of their designers. To address inequities and skewed social structures, secure for ourselves a part in conversations dominated by industry, and have a better accounting of government, individuals and communities must be intrinsically involved in hardware design. To build the place of open hardware in our future toolset, we have to address the question: who gets to participate, and how?

Many of our colleagues in this series have argued for prioritizing funding for non-proprietary hardware, software and data projects. In addition, instead of funding only large, top-down and centralized projects, funding for open hardware should encourage and support small, locally relevant hardware efforts that are sometimes, but not always, connected to larger projects. Funding for open hardware can and should support similar designs, each which have purpose in reinforcing a development need or a community priority. Open hardware projects offer consistent refinement opportunities. Solving the same development problem refines the goal and demonstrates the development need.

To support the growing landscape of open hardware projects, we need to advocate for different metrics in understanding data appropriate for purpose and the open hardware tools that will get us to that data. As explored in a 2016 report from the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology, there are a number of ways that data from open hardware can be used across a spectrum of project types — from community engagement and education to regulation and enforcement. However, attempts to discuss different possibilities for incorporating open hardware and the resulting data as part of a broader environmental monitoring toolset are met with fatigue and distrust by government. Prioritizing multi-sector dialogue and creating new taxonomies — in particular, those that support and recognize different types of data and its usefulness — can allow for the inclusion of new voices and forms of participation in our democratic systems.

Finally, insert “open” into education. While “making” has taken center-stage in national dialogue about physical creativity in STE(A)M, it’s time that we add the power of “open” to making practices. The design of open hardware can show students the value of collaboration (and not just competition), how we can creatively troubleshoot, fix and add local considerations to the scientific projects we undertake. The ability to then use the hardware to ask and answer questions that are locally relevant and meaningful can set the stage for a young person to understand that they can and should have a voice in their communities.

This potential of open hardware — as a tool through which a multiplicity of people can come together to problem-solve and envision a different future for their community — can be realized. Community-driven hardware design and development, and the resulting data, is integral to our being able to tell our own stories. If we can’t tell our own stories, someone else will tell them for us. We need to see science in knowledge production — no matter how that knowledge is described — and seek science in spaces valuable to the participating community. Open hardware projects are key to our collective ability to participate in conversations with government, industry, and between ourselves. This should be both a right — to use science to understand and participate — and a responsibility — for our democratic institutions to work, it takes an engaged public. Let’s prioritize the value of collaboration, public participation, both in and with science, and recognize the role of open hardware in doing so.


[1] We considered adding “funding” as a fourth necessity. In the cases of both Safecast and Public Lab, funding was essential in community longevity. However, we also recognize that there are many cases, especially in smaller, geographically focused projects, where volunteer communities have allowed projects to thrive even without funding.

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