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August 13 2012

14:00

Movement-Based Arts Inspire Public Lab's DIY Environmental Science

Researchers at Public Laboratory pursue environmental justice creatively, through re-imagining our relationship with the environment. Our model is to rigorously ask oddball questions, then initiate research by designing or adapting locally accessible tools and methods to collect the data we need to answer those questions.

We've found, perhaps not surprisingly, that innovation in tools and methods frequently emerges from creative practices. In the larger trend of art plus science collaboration, 2D graphics, illustration, and visualization get most of the glory. But sculpture and dance are also major drivers of environmental imagination -- and therefore scientific inquiry.

taking back the production of research supplies

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In early July, approximately 25 people gathered in the cool interior of the 600,000-square-foot Pfizer building to design and build kites and balloons. This event was led by a sculptor, Mathew Lippincott, one of the co-founders of Public Laboratory. From his workshop in Portland, Ore., he's been researching the performance of tyvek and bamboo as well as ultra-lightweight plastic coated with iron oxide powder that heats itself in the sun. Because community researchers around the world use commercially produced kites and balloons to lift payloads (such as visible and infrared cameras, air quality sensors, and grab samplers) high into the air, this is part of a mission-critical initiative to take back the production of research supplies into the hands of local communities.

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dancers and scientists collaborate

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What you may not be expecting to hear is that half of the workshop attendees were dancers or choreographers, organized by Lailye Weidman and Jessica Einhorn, two fellows of iLAND, an organization dedicated to collaboration between dancers and scientists. Inspired by embodied investigations into atmospheric pressure and dynamics, these dancers joined the sculptors to drive forward a research agenda into the little-understood urban wind condition. Other attendees included engineers, theater artists, design students, landscape architects, and urban foresters. This group spent the weekend splitting bamboo, heat seaming painter's plastic towards building a solar-heated balloon large enough to lift a person, and learning about aerodynamics through attempting to fly their creations.

This work on the replicability (ease of making) and autonomy (easily procurable materials) of DIY aerial platforms -- directed by the aesthetic and embodied sense of sculptors and dancers -- has increased the ability of non-professional scientists to ask and answer their questions about their environment.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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