Grassroots Mapping Initiative 2 Years Later

On July 15, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon well was capped. The well wasn’t officially sealed for another two months. Two years later, our work is still relevant.

Images taken by citizen mappers of the gulf oil spill.

Two years after the disaster, I thought I’d take some time to look back at a project taken up by Jeffrey Yoo Warren. Warren was an MIT student who started the Grassroots Mapping Initiative. The initiative was a group of citizen mappers documenting the environmental effects of the Gulf Oil Spill through high-resolution aerial photography. Their images provided some of the few high resolution aerial images of the gulf oil spill made available to the public.

I was fortunate enough to work with Jeffrey in the project. For me, the project was about transparency and bringing to light the extent of the environmental impact. Open data is important to me and I’ve worked directly with the US government and the World Bank about this issue. So when Jeffrey was looking for support for the project, I was one of the first to respond.

The project was simple, something that one person could do: Use inexpensive digital cameras and balloons to take aerial photographs of the gulf oil spill.

Since Jeffrey and his team continue their mapping initiatives today, I thought that I’d include a How to Guide that will help you start your own mapping project.

What comes in some kits.

Grassroots Mapping Toolkit

The aerial mapping toolkit, seen above, is a simplified kite and balloon aerial photography system for high-resolution map-making. The tookit consists of:

Flight platforms: Assembling a balloon kit will cost from $100-200, including helium.

Camera housings:
Single Line systems: The PET Bottle & Rubber Band Rig wraps around the small and medium sized cameras (up to micro 4/3) for crash protection while firmly mounting it in a position for vertical images.

For heavy cameras, a Trash Can Rig offers more protection.

Multiple Line Systems: these are more complex to build but can provide added stability, especially useful for video. (Several people have created Picavet rigs.)

Cameras: A small camera that supports continuous shooting mode and a large storage card, or an excellent camera phone are the preferred options.

Mapmaking software: Public Laboratory’s MapKnitter is easy to use software for map making. (Continue on to MapKnitter Guide and MapKnitter Help for more information.)

Useful guides: Our latest guides can always be found on the Guides page, including:

Curricula and workshops: Our Curriculum-Guide covers the entire process and some theory behind mapping. It is still in beta.

Advanced Techniques

The sky’s the limit, literally, on the application and use cases for grassroots area mapping. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was what got me involved but tomorrow it could be something else. If you are bold enough to start your own mapping initiative, come back and share the photos with us.


Adam Boalt
About the Author Adam Boalt

Serial Entrepreneur and Emerging Technologies Evangelist. Interactive Strategy, User Experience, Search Marketing, Search Optimization and Social Media enthusiast.
Read All Posts By Adam Boalt

Google Shakes Things Up with AdWords Redesign How to Find the Right Interactive Agency