Kickstarting an open digital microscope kit for public-spirited citizen science

The Community Microscope is a fully-funded, crowdfunded open source microscope hardware kit built around a digital camera: it costs $39 and snaps together in 15 minutes.

While microscopes have plenty of uses, these were specifically designed for citizen science: plug it into your smartphone, head out into the world, and start sampling and analyzing atmospheric pollutants (2.5 microns and up) and logging your findings.

It comes from Public Lab, whose past projects including breaking the cordon around the BP Deep Water Horizon spill with balloon and kite-mapping kits that produced independent telemetry on the scope of the catastrophe.

Not only does this kit build on the work of open source science groups like Parts & Crafts, Hackteria, Lifepatch and the Open Flexure Microscope project, but because of Public Lab's mission to address environmental problems that affect people, we also worked with communities who are facing air pollution which they hope to photograph with these kits.

Public Lab has been working with people across Wisconsin who've seen pollution from a boom in frac sand mining — mining vast amounts of sand to use in oil and gas frac operations in other states. The especially worrisome part is a form of air pollution called respirable silica — a fine, sharp-edged crystalline dust which can cause respiratory problems — blowing over and into peoples homes and yards.

Although many efforts to document pollution use expensive air samplers, lab tests and equipment, people living around the mines can see dust piling up on their windowsills and in their homes.

Some community members sought a way to actually see these particles as small as 2.5 microns in size – an idea which led to the Community Microscope project. These photos could be used in advocacy and to raise awareness, but may also be helpful to see what particles are made of, just by examining them visually.

The Community Microscope Kit [Public Lab/Kickstarter]