Fishing for environmental justice

Sociology major Kaya Simmons developed a "thermal fishing bob" for community members to map thermal pollution in their own neighborhoods. Photo via Public Lab.

Soci­ology major Kaya Sim­mons devel­oped a “thermal fishing bob” for com­mu­nity mem­bers to map thermal pol­lu­tion in their own neigh­bor­hoods. Photo via Public Lab.

Kaya Sim­mons grew up in Brooklyn, that won­derful bor­ough of bridges, bagels, the world-​​famous Cyclone ride…and super­fund sites?  In 2011, the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency took the Gowanus Canal–one of the most pol­luted bodies of water–under its wing. A major source of pol­lu­tion, Sim­mons told me at the recent Pop Up lab on sus­tain­ability, is com­bined sewage overflow.

To under­stand the impact of this problem, researchers use some­thing called a flir camera to visu­alize the thermal vari­a­tion in a body of water. Gross as it sounds, sewage get­ting dumped into the canal is warmer than the water, so illegal sites can be iden­ti­fied using this visu­al­iza­tion tech­nique. The only problem is that flir cam­eras are ridicu­lously expen­sive (the cheapest ones are $1,000 bucks). The EPA is putting out its own flir camera results of the Gowanus Canal, but the com­mu­nity has no way of checking the data for itself.

There’s not enough sci­en­tific data on a public and local com­mu­nity level for people to under­stand the actual health haz­ards,” said Sim­mons. So he decided to do some­thing about it.

Last year, as a first-​​year soci­ology major, Sim­mons worked with assis­tant pro­fessor Sara Wylie to fur­ther develop a low-​​cost, do-​​it-​​yourself instru­ment that would allow him and his neigh­bors to map the thermal pol­lu­tion of the Gowanus Canal them­selves. The device was orig­i­nally con­cep­tu­al­ized by Wylie’s stu­dents at Rhode Island School of Design and Public Lab, an open source, DIY sci­ence site cofounded by Wylie and her colleagues.

It’s unclear where the sewage over­flow sites in the Gowanus actu­ally are, so this tool would help iden­tify them. But what is this tool exactly? “All it is is a ther­mometer attached to a light which changes color,” said Wylie. “Basi­cally what you do is you take the light and treat it as a single pixel in a pic­ture,” she explained. Then they use the device to take a long expo­sure photo as they reel it in, map­ping the body of water with light as they go.

The device is called a “thermal fishing bob” because it’s light­weight enough to hook onto a fishing line and throw it into the middle of the water. It col­lects data as you reel it back in.

The cur­rent pro­to­type cost about $70 to develop, but Sim­mons and Wylie expect that number to drop to $20 or $30 once they’ve worked out all the kinks.

At that point they’ll begin selling it on Public Lab. “So anyone who wants to use it can,” said Sim­mons. Right now, Public Lab has all the instruc­tions for anyone who wants to build it themselves.