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Grassroots Mapping: How You Can Create Aerial Cartography for Under $100, and Use It to Do Good

How to capture your own aerial imagery that's higher resolution than NASA's, for about $100.

Historically, aerial mapmaking has been handled by governments and businesses alone. Who else could afford to put satellites in orbit or hire planes for private flyovers?

The notion that aerial imagery is only for the rich and powerful is being turned on its ear by an inspired group of DIY cartographers who have pioneered the field of grassroots mapping. The concept is simple: for about $100 in materials you can shoot aerial imagery that is higher resolution than any standard public satellite imagery. Using incredibly simple balloon and kite contraptions, you can capture the images on demand whenever you want, as often as you want.

Jeffrey Warren of MIT's Media Lab came up with the basic concept, which he calls "Grassroots Mapping," last year while working on a land-rights dispute in Lima, Peru. Then the BP oil spill happened, and the benefits of this method of mapping became urgently clear. Working with the Lousiana Bucket Brigade during the media blackout when FAA regulations prevented aircraft from flying lower than 4,000 feet above sensitive areas of the spill, Warren and the Grassroots Mapping team flew balloons and kites and captured incredibly vivid images of the oil spill's impacts. Using simple online cartographic tools, the photos can be stitched together into bigger maps, like this one of the Lake Borgne wetlands east of New Orleans captured on June 11th of last year.

Of the oil spill work, the Grassroots Mapping team explained:

We're helping citizens to use balloons, kites, and other simple and inexpensive tools to produce their own aerial imagery of the spill… documentation that will be essential for environmental and legal use in coming yeas.We believe in complete open access to spill imagery and are releasing all imagery into the public domain.


The beauty is, as Warren explains in the video below, "the tools are simple and cheap enough that anyone can use them...Once stitched together, these form some of the most detailed maps ever made of the oil spill." So detailed, and such high resolution—higher than NASA's and NOAA's maps, in fact—that Google licensed the images to use in the aerial layer of their maps of the region.

Now the Grassroots Mapping project is spreading far beyond the Gulf Coast. Maps are being used to monitor mining sites, assess ongoing or sudden environment damages, observe coral reef health and degradation. This video explains more:


Today, Grassroots Mapping has evolved into a broader effort called the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), which "collaboratively develops and publicizes accessible technologies for investigating and reporting on local environmental health and justice issues."

If you want to start creating some grassroots maps of your own, the PLOTS site—fully loaded with lessons, tools, templates and links to supplies and software—is a great place to start. This video will help you understand what you're in for.


I particularly this elementary piece of advice: the rule of thumb is, less than 10 miles per hour of wind is good balloon weather, more than 10 miles per hour of wind is good kite weather. For a look as some citizen mappers working in the notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn, OnEarth has a great story and slide show. We'll put together our own slide show soon of the best images from this nascent, crucial movement.

Aerial imaging acquired by grassroots mapper Erin Sharkey. Image (cc) by GonzoEarth on Flickr.

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