A group of tech enthusiasts and bloggers in Tbilisi Georgia joined me and Sopho from OpenMapsCaucasus to prototype some solar hot air balloons for use in balloon mapping. Helium in Georgia is exorbitantly expensive – $700 for a 250-cubic foot tank, which would cost $125 in the US or $250 in the West Bank (and would last for up to 8 flights). To try to get around the helium cost issue, we’re trying a variety of other means to get cameras up in the air.
This flight wasn’t successful – we reached only about 10 meters – but perhaps with darker plastic, or in lower winds, this could be a viable replacement for helium.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been working with JumpStart International’s project, OpenMapsCaucasus in Georgia, teaching balloon-mapping workshops. With OMC’s Austin Cowley, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Svaneti in the northwest of Georgia, where we collaborated with local OMC staff and a group of enterprising school kids to map the entire city of Mestia:
The map, 5.5 kilometers from end to end, is the largest area ever mapped using these techniques, and was completed in less than 3 days, with a 6-foot helium balloon flying up to 1.4 kilometers above the ground. Below, you can see the flight paths of our first 3 launches, recorded with a lightweight GPS which we attached to the balloon:
The trip is the first of a series of mapping expeditions and workshops I’ll be teaching with OMC staff across the country, and the imagery will be used to improve the public domain map that OMC is developing.
Since May, volunteers and staff from the LABB have been working with students from MIT’s media lab on an aerial photography mapping project. The Gulf Oil Spill Mapping project is so simple that it baffles people: attach a basic camera to a kite or weather ballon and set it to automatically take a picture every 5, 10 or 20 seconds. Let the rig out 1000 feet and cover as much coastline as you can. The photos are then sent to some smart guys at MIT (including the project’s fearless leader, Jeff Warren) who then stitch the photos together pixel by pixel and georeference them to make a map.
The simplicity of this project is what initially sparked my interest in it. The kits are assembled from relatively inexpensive materials, and almost anyone can perform the basic tasks of attaching the camera and letting out the kite or balloon. Since its inception, the project has successfully accumulated a lot of quality data. However, mapping the gulf coast oil spill is different than mapping, say, the festival grounds at Bonneroo.
The first, most obvious challenge is access. At Grand Isle, for example, the beaches remain open to the public, but only up to the water berm, about 30 feet back from the high tide mark. Even under low-wind conditions, it is almost impossible to get pictures of the coastline from this distance–especially when the Coast Guard and mysterious private security teams involved in the beach clean-up are breathing down your neck. When it is windy, the kite or balloon is carried even farther back from the coastline, and you end up with a bunch of pictures of people’s camp roofs. The old standby for us there has been the pier at Grand Isle State Park, which allows us to position the kite or balloon directly over the coastline. However, it forces us to limit our mapping to a very narrow section of beach, since we are confined to the pier. In contrast, the Mississippi Coast remains open to the public and our brave volunteers have actually waded out into the water to properly position the camera over the coastline–with great results! (But, we don’t know how much longer the MS beaches will remain open.)
Isle Grand Terre, a barrier island off the eastern coast of Grand Isle, hit the mainstream media a few weeks ago when its shores and wildlife were covered with thick, black oil. The day after oil hit, our volunteers were able to hitch a ride on a boat with researcher Adam Griffith from Western Carolina University and photographer Richard Shephard. The amazing results of that trip can be seen here:
However, access to the island has been significantly restricted since oil was found there. On Thursday, LABB volunteer Elizabeth, HandsOn New Orleans volunteer Erin, and I were lucky enough to score a boat ride with Greenpeace to Isle Grand Terre, along with a marine biologist and a filmmaker from California. Technically, Greenpeace warned us, we were not supposed to even go to the island. Getting on the beach there would require us to tow a small skiff boat and use it to ferry our group’s members to the beach. The prospects for toting a heavy helium tank on a boat with 8 people and then transitioning it to an 8-foot skiff boat with a 2-stroke engine seemed dim. I opted for the kite.
The boat ride from the Bridgeside Marina on Grand Isle to the fort at Grand Terre was slow. The entire bay is essentially a no-wake zone. In addition, there are larger oil-soaked fishing and shrimping boats constantly leaving and arriving at the docks of the Sand Dollar Marina at the eastern end of the island. Booms set up around Queen Bess island and large barges transporting tanker trucks present further navigational challenges. When we finally got to the island, we saw that the clean-up operations had been effective on the beach–the four-inch thick pools of oil were gone. But, thick, brown and orange oil remained trapped in the rock jetties and the marsh grasses surrounding them. Standing on the jetty, I looked down through the spaces in the rocks at pools of oil and brown frothy mess.
It is difficult to imagine how, or if, it can ever been cleaned up. When I set up the kite, I was disappointed to find that the wind was not strong enough to lift it up to 1000 feet. The more I let out the reel, the further from the coastline the kite ventured, with little rise in elevation. The results are that we captured plenty of pictures of the island’s interior, but only a few of the coastline (and these were at low elevation). My next option would have been to trail the kite behind the boat, but divergent interests among the boat’s passengers and the fuel level of the boat ruled out this scenario. All in all, the mapping trip was not the most successful one we have had so far. But, it also was not a total failure. Elizabeth obtained some excellent shots of the oil on Grand Terre, dolphins looking for food in shallow water and the clean-up operations, which can be viewed on the LABB flickr site.
We were also grateful to establish a relationship with Greenpeace. Having never worked with Greenpeace before, the organization’s reputation for in-your-face environmental activism made me a little wary of their intentions and tactics in the gulf. Although my personal sentiments toward off-shore drilling and the energy sector are closely aligned with theirs, I recognize the importance of petroleum to the economy and culture of coastal Louisiana; and I politely keep my opinions to myself here. A moratorium on off-shore drilling is not a popular idea in Louisiana–and Grand Isle is no exception. Further, I believe that using any disaster as a backdrop to bolster a political agenda is not only exploitative, it’s disrespectful. If you’re going to bother coming down to the gulf right now, you better have something to offer the people that live and work here–and anti-drilling rhetoric doesn’t count. Save it for Washington.
To Greenpeace’s credit, I was impressed with their staff’s efforts to keep a low profile and not isolate the community along political lines. The organization is funded entirely from private donations and does not endorse political candidates or accept funds from them. Their work in Grand Isle is focused specifically on providing boat transport to independent journalists, scientists and organizations who lack the funds to charter boats. Sure, they are also taking their own pictures as well. I am grateful for their services and appreciative of their respect for the sensitivity of the issue here.
The moral of this story: we can’t depend solely on the generosity of Greenpeace to get us where we need to go! Boats cost money; and mainstream media outlets have a lot more of it than we do–but they don’t have kites! If you are interested in our mapping project and would like to see more images of areas that are only accessible by boat, please visit our Grassroots Mapping page to make a donation!
Update: we’ve reached our funding deadline! Thanks for the support; if you want to continue contributing, please use the PayPal donate button in the right-hand column.
We’re starting a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to support citizen mappers of the Gulf Oil Spill. Check out the above video, and visit the Kickstarter page. The cool part about Kickstarter is that you get ‘rewards’ for pledging given amounts – if you pledge $10 we’ll send you a 5×7 print of one of our images. If you pledge $100, we’ll do better – along with a 16×20 poster, we’ll write your name on one of the kites we use to capture this imagery! But we need your help to get the word out. Unless we reach our funding goal by June 21, nobody pays – it’s all or nothing!
Keep track of the campaign with the badge on the right:
A couple updates: we’re now deep in the stitching process. Above is a preview; we hope to post one or two finished stitches today.
Kris Ansin of Tulane and Louisiana Bucket Brigade is coordinating mapping teams on the ground. (He’s leading a trip today). We’ve had some donations but if you’re able to, please donate to support our efforts. Even $50 will buy us a tank of helium. $100 buys us a new kite.
In the meantime we’ve had some great support from Kristian Hansen of TungstenMonkey, a local production company. Kristian documented our training session last Saturday and has posted an intro video to our project which gets across a lot of information in a very short time. Thanks Kristian!
On Sunday May 9, Stewart Long, Shannon and Mariko from Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and several other volunteers made it to the Chandeleur islands on a boat and in 9mph winds were able to image the slick making its way through the island chain. There appeared to be no booms in place at that location. In the above image you can see their boat and the tether for the balloon.
Stewart and others from LABB are scheduled to be out on a boat today down in Port Fourchon, and we may have more imagery for you then. For now, the full dataset from today is available here, and is in the public domain:
Many birds were congregating on the islands; in coming weeks we’ll be looking out for tarred and/or dead birds and other wildlife. One advantage to the high resolution we’re working at is that we hope to be able to pick out individual animals and plants, and thus better quantify the damage wreaked by the British Petroleum spill.
The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) is a community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. By democratizing inexpensive and accessible "Do-It-Yourself" techniques, Public Laboratory creates a collaborative network of practitioners who actively re-imagine the human relationship with the environment.
Tools and techniques for participatory grassroots mapping, emphasizing subjective and narrative mapping as a form of expression. By using low-cost tools like kites and balloons along with inexpensive digital cameras and mobile phones, communities can explore, document and assert their own local geographies. We are developing a map-making curriculum for kids and digital tools to publish grassroots maps in standard formats such as KML, Shapefile, and GeoJSON.
Cartagen is a set of tools for mapping, enabling users to view and configure live streams of geographic data in a dynamic, personally relevant way. These tools helps users to analyze and view collected and shared geographic and temporal data from multiple sources. The framework uses vector-based, context-sensitive drawing methods to describe data, not merely in terms of lines and polygons, but also with adaptive use of color, movement, and projection. Applications include mapping real-time air pollution, citizen reporting, and disaster response.
NEWSFLOW is a dynamic, real-time map of news reporting, which displays both the latest top stories as well as the news organizations which covered them. All articles are from the last few minutes. Viewing news in this way lets us see how the choice of 'top stories' by news bureaus is geographically unequal, or rather, what areas of the world are neglected by various national news sources. Built with HTML5 on the dynamic mapping framework CARTAGEN, NEWSFLOW draws on real-time data from over 200 news organizations as well as Google, Yahoo, and other sources.
WHOOZ is a project to map urban wildlife in realtime with SMS messages throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Cambridge, MA. Users can request realtime 'safaris' to find animals recently seen near their current location.
A project mapping the flow of coffee on global, urban, local, architectural, biological, and personal scales. The full collection includes over 50 pieces on cardboard, paper, and chipboard in ink, paint, graphite, chalk, charcoal, and coffee.
I was a partner at Vestal Design, where worked with Dave Pitman and Mike Lin on lots of stuff like Xobni's user interface and branding and information design for Intel, General Electric, and others. I also taught information design workshops for General Electric and Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai.
I work occasionally and excitedly with Natalie Jeremijenko as part of her xDesign Lab at NYU.
Weardrobe is a site for tagging and organizing clothing online, which I created with Suzanne Xie and Richard Tong.
Cut&Paste Labs was founded by Diego Rotalde and me; we taught workshops on web design and development with open-source tools in Lima, Peru in 2006-7. Some of our students went on to found their own firms...