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May 03 2012

13:53

How We Got Here: The Road to Public Lab's Map Project

Last week, Public Laboratory announced that public domain maps are now starting to show up on Google Earth and Google Maps. But how did the projects get there? Here's a timeline of a Public Laboratory map project.

Making a map

Public Laboratory projects take a community-based approach to making maps that differs depending on where you are and the reason you want to create a map. People map areas for a number of reasons, including because there's a need to monitor an area of environmental concern, a dynamic event is happening that there's a desire to capture, or you cannot find adequate aerial image data. Before going out to map, preparing for fieldwork starts with the Public Lab map tools page, where you can discover what type of equipment to use and how to safely use it. Multiple research notes on how to do things such as setting up a dual camera rig and stabilizing the camera with a picavet can help with specific problems, but there are also hundreds of people in the online Public Lab community of mapmakers, sharing tips and experiences on the site.

Upon return

After the mapping flight, the map making begins with backing up the images and sorting through the set, making a subset for map production. Depending on the time in the air, there will be hundreds and sometimes thousands of individual images. Depending on the area of interest, you can hone in on which images will be used in creating the map. Assuming the flight was at a steady altitude, the images that you want to select are the sharpest ones that are vertically oriented. If you have many images for the same area, pick the best one, but also pick overlapping images so that there is plenty of overlap among the different images in the next step.

mapmill.jpg Public Laboratory's MapMill.

Images can be sorted locally or online. Public Laboratory created an online tool where a group can do collaborative selection. MapMill.org is a web-based image sorting and ranking tool where multiple users can sort through a large dataset simultaneously.

Map production

With a smaller set of the best images on hand, the images can be dynamically placed on the map in a process known as georectification. After all the images have been added to the map, the project is exported. The MapKnitter export tool does all of the geographic information systems crunching behind the scenes with the geospatial data abstraction library (gdal.org) and produces a GeoTIFF map file. The GeoTIFF format is a public domain metadata standard that embeds geographic information into the image TIFF file. At this point, the map is now in an interchangeable format that can be easily distributed.

MapKnitter.jpg Public Laboratory MapKnitter web-based aerial image map production tool.

Public Laboratory Map Archive

Public Lab hosts its own map data archive for storing and sharing finished map projects. Each map in the archive has a "map details page" that hosts details such as: title, date, place, location, resolution, field map maker, field notes, cartographer, ground images, oblique images from the flight, and comments from website users. The map participants choose whether to publish the map as Public Domain, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike, Creative Commons Attribution, or Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial.

occupy-oakland.jpg Public Laboratory Occupy Oakland, November 2, 2011 -- General Strike map in Google Earth.

Maps are viewable on the archive itself, and you can subscribe to it as an RSS feed. However, it's also a place for distribution of the data. As we announced last week, Google Earth has started licensing our public domain maps. Google Earth plans to continue to publish public domain maps from the Public Lab Archive a few times a year.

It's quite exciting to see these Public Labs maps go online with a ubiquitous data provider such as Google. We look forward to more people participating in this activity, and more publishing of public domain data.

rifle.jpg Google published some of the maps to Google Maps as well as Google Earth, which makes those maps widely accessible in the web browser and on mobile applications that use Google Maps.

April 19 2012

13:31

Public Lab's Community-Created Maps Land on Google Earth

We've just announced that community-generated open-source maps from the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) -- captured from kites and balloons -- have been added to Google Earth. The 45-plus maps are the first aerial maps produced by citizens to be featured on the site, and are highlighted on the Google Lat Long Blog.

The Public Laboratory is an expansion of the Grassroots Mapping community. During an initial project mapping the BP oil spill, local residents used helium-filled balloons and digital cameras to generate high-resolution DIY "satellite" maps documenting the extent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- at a time when there was little public information available. Expanding the toolkit beyond aerial mapping, Public Laboratory has been growing into a diverse community, both online and offline, experimenting with new ways to produce information about our surroundings. The lab's DIY kits cost less than $100 to assemble.

"We're very excited to be able to include some of the balloon and kite imagery from the Public Laboratory in Google Earth. It provides a unique, high-resolution view of interesting places, and highlights the citizen science work of the Public Laboratory community," said Christiaan Adams of Google Earth Outreach.

"The Public Laboratory is demonstrating that low-cost tools, in the hands of everyday people, can help generate information citizens need about their communities," added John Bracken, Knight Foundation program director for journalism and media innovation.

a mission of civic science

Especially exciting is a map of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn, N.Y., that was created during the winter of 2011 and has been added to the primary layer of Google Earth/Google Maps. The New York chapter of Public Laboratory has begun an ongoing periodic monitoring campaign in partnership with local environmental advocacy group the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. Designated a Superfund cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 due to pollution from decades of coal tar accumulation in canal sediments, and suffering from 300 million gallons of untreated sewage which are released into the canal yearly, local activists have adapted and improved many of the techniques developed for monitoring the effects of oil contamination in the Gulf of Mexico. That a group of local activists could create a high-resolution map of an area they care about -- and that such imagery could replace commercial and government data as a recognized representation of that place -- is a powerful example of the civic science mission of Public Laboratory.

nyc.JPG

Democratizing diy

Public Lab 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.

The core PLOTS program is focused on "civic science" in which we research open-source hardware and software tools and methods to generate knowledge and share data about community environmental health. Our goal is to increase the ability of underserved communities to identify, redress, remediate, and create awareness and accountability around environmental concerns. PLOTS achieves this by providing online and offline training, education and support, and by focusing on locally relevant outcomes that emphasize human capacity and understanding.

Please watch for the follow-up post by Public Lab's Stewart Long in the next week.

January 04 2012

15:20

Public Lab Produces Wetlands Maps From Balloon and Kite Flights

The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) is an organization and membership community which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. Public Laboratory's mapping tools, openly available and easy to use, are putting the ability to do processes such as georectifying in the hands of people who may have never created a map. 

Using aerial mapping techniques, residents and volunteers of the Gulf Coast region began field mapping trips in 2010 to document the impact of the BP oil spill. Between May 2010 and April 2011, tens of thousands of images were collected and 50 regional maps created. Between May and October 2011, Public Laboratory partnered with Dr. Alex Kolker, from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium to begin a bi-monthly monitoring of select oil impacted and non-impacted sites in the Barataria Bay region. The intent of this phase of wetlands mapping was to monitor change over time with high-resolution aerial and ground imagery.

slong-image00.jpg
Wilkinson Bay in Louisiana.

MAKING MAPS WITH GEORECTIFICATION
The fieldwork that goes into collecting images is the first step in creating maps. On the back end, the next step involves georectification -- the process where balloon and kite aerial images are "published" into geographic data. Simply, it is the alignment of an aerial image with a map or other spatial data of the same area. This part of the process is where images become maps and are associated with geographic standardized formats so that other users and programs can exchange and experience them in the same context.

Public Laboratory map production has used some specific techniques in creating wetlands maps. The maps are made through a georectification process by which adjacent images from the flights are merged in overlay as they are aligned to existing mapping information. Different "base" data can be used in these types of projects. In this case, we're georectifying the imagery through examination of the new images with existing imagery.

slong-image02.jpg

A new unaligned image (right) about to be georectified with the other imagery. The base layer is visible in the background.

Distortion correction is applied to the new images, and they're moved around so that the same features of the base map are in perfect overlay with the new image on top. In the bayou setting where lots of change is occurring on the outer coastlines, features such as vegetation composition and interior waterways are used to match each overlay. Although waterways in marshland may shift quite rapidly, the center of a 3-way intersection is quite stable, as a rule.

Matching the imagery based on the interior features has proven effective in this simple map-making technique. While the outer coastline in our new images has changed since the time of the base data, the process of fitting the imagery with all of the interior ground control features allows us to discover where the coastline is with some measure of confidence. Or to put it differently -- when the alignment happens with the historic data in most of the image, then the new areas can be extrapolated with regularity.

slong-image01.jpg

The image is aligned in overlay with the base data during the georectify process.

Visit the Public Lab site for guides and discussion about the process and to view image sets and maps that have already been published in the map archive. The archive is a home and distribution channel for published open-source maps.

Visit MapKnitter.org to learn about our map-stitching tools and to view maps that are being created by people who are using aerial mapping techniques in new ways to document and monitor sites and events that are of importance to their community.

August 19 2010

14:33

How Can Civic Media Help Cover 'Slow-Motion Disasters'?

I'm helping MIT's Center for Future Civic Media put together a talk on how better to cover slow-motion disasters, and I'd like your thoughts.

The bursting of the housing bubble, for example, cost the American economy $8.3 trillion. Yet for a decade, national media missed signs of the coming disaster, acting instead to simply keep pumping.

While we can cover hurricanes and terrorist attacks, we – the media, Americans, humans – seem to be terrible technologically and rhetorically at covering disasters that unfold slowly, stories like oil spill cleanups or health care policy that take months or years to fully tell, yet, as that $8.3 trillion number shows, absolutely require attention and action.

So what reporting models would help avoid or mitigate these disasters before they happen? What examples have you seen, as we at MIT have with Jeff Warren's grassroots mapping work in the Gulf or much of the work at ProPublica, of people or groups already doing a good job of using new tools and methods?

July 30 2010

18:01

Creating a Participatory, Open Source Map of an Entire Country

mestia-cartagen.jpg

For the past few weeks I've been working from Tbilisi, Georgia -- the other Georgia -- with a fascinating organization called OpenMapsCaucasus (OMC for short), which has been hard at work creating the first participatory, public domain road map of an entire country.

Created by JumpStart International, and building on previous mapping work in the West Bank and Gaza, OMC employs dozens of GPS-wielding mappers who work in teams across Georgia to collect, process and publish map data. The OMC office in Tbilisi is abuzz with tech-savvy students, GIS wizards, and a fun-loving and coffee-fueled atmosphere. The sheer amount of map data flowing through it is stunning. Ten offices and over 200 volunteers have mapped thousands of kilometers of roads in over 1,600 cities, towns, and villages. And they're giving it all away for free.

balloon-car.jpg

Teaching Cartographic Literacy

Sure, Google Maps is free, but this effort differs significantly from commercial services in that the source data -- the points, lines, and polygons -- are being released without restriction. Any individual, business, or government agency can download it and create their own maps, use it for research or promotional materials, etc. The technologies OMC is deploying come largely from the Wikipedia-style OpenStreetMap project, though OMC has chosen to hire and train mappers, who then recruit volunteers, in a kind of turbocharged collaborative model. They expect to finish the map by the end of July.

Based on my work with Grassroots Mapping (you can read more in an earlier Idea Lab post) -- especially in Lima, Peru -- OMC and I have many common goals. We share an interest in participatory and open-source mapping and a desire to teach cartographic literacy as an enriching and empowering activity. The opportunity to use Grassroots Mapping tools -- such as aerial photography from balloons and kites -- to support such an ambitious project was too much to pass up.

We started with an ambitious goal -- to use a balloon to map an entire city as fast as possible. In the mountain town of Mestia, we collaborated with local OMC staff and a half-dozen kids from the area to photograph a 5.5 km stretch in just 3 days (see the results in the image at top). The six-foot-wide balloon rose to a height of 1.4 kilometers, and the attached Canon point-and-shoot camera snapped pictures almost a kilometer wide. An overturned bicycle helped us quickly reel in the fishing line tether and recover the equipment. A thrifty shopper could assemble our entire kit for as little as $200. Here you can see the flight path of our balloon on day one, captured with a small GPS on the balloon:

mestia.jpg

More Than Just Maps

The possibility of making a high-resolution map of an entire city so quickly opens a variety of exciting possibilities. In places where the rate of change outpaces our ability to map from satellites -- Port au Prince comes to mind -- maps could be made once or twice per month and, more importantly, they could be made and published by the people who live there. This emphasis on placing the authorship of maps in the hands of residents is more compelling to me even than the stunning resolution we're getting -- in some cases up to 100 times better than what's available on Google Maps.

austin.jpg

OMC's goals go beyond maps, however. The idea of engaging volunteers and tech enthusiasts in public domain works is intended to build participation in civil society, in addition to promoting the use of free and open source technology. Be sure to check out the 'big map' as it reaches completion by the end this month: opencaucasusmap.org

April 08 2010

15:46

Introducing the Department of Play

[This post originally appeared on the MIT CoLab Radio blog, in Danielle Martin's Media Mindfulness column.]

The Department of Play (DoP) is a working group of researchers, developers, and community practitioners at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM) bonded by a common value: the design of new technologies and methodologies to support youth as active participants in their local urban neighborhoods.

We might glance at the teen sitting next to us on the bus with a smart-phone and think: “Wow, the digital divide is shrinking.”  My first thought goes to all the youth who don’t have access to mobile phones, who also have things to say.  But I do see the divide diminishing when I see the wide smile of a Peruvian youth playing around with a big red balloon with a makeshift camera rig he made himself, to make his own map of his favela neighborhood.

While higher broadband speeds and affordability recommended by the FCC’s recent national broadband plan should increase access to internet tools in under-served communities, we still need to consider the increased digital literacy and local facilitation necessary to use fully tap the power of these tools. While access is important, much more is needed to make sure technology can be used to empower young people.

GrassrootsMapping in Peru

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