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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.

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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 12 2011

16:30

Haiti, before/after/now: Google images tell the tale

It’s been a year since Haiti’s devastating earthquake, and news organizations have been finding creative and commendable ways to mark the sad anniversary. Some are going local, finding stories within their communities that bring the tragedy home; some are going meta, examining big-picture issues like technology and foreign aid as they relate to the crisis. And others are going back — to Haiti itself, to the scene of the quake, to paint a picture of how far the country’s come and how far it still needs to go.

Of this last group, The New York Times’s coverage stands out: The paper’s interactive team put together a fantastic interactive map of the devastation, allowing users to experiment with satellite images of Haiti before the quake, immediately after, and now.

The feature’s general awesomeness isn’t a surprise: Fairly or not, excellence from the team is pretty much an expectation at this point. What’s more remarkable than the graphic’s quality is its source: The interactive uses images from Google Earth and the earth imagery outfit GeoEye. And those images were offered by Google itself.

In advance of today’s anniversary, a rep from Google Maps and Earth reached out to news organizations, offering a downloadable, high-res photo album; before-and-after stills, hosted by a third party, of tent villages; and videos of before-and-after scenes, including Port-au-Prince’s Pétionville Golf Course-turned-tent camp (on both Quicktime HD and YouTube) and Haiti’s National Palace (Quicktime HD, YouTube). It also provided raw footage — of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (July ‘09, January ‘10, November ‘10), Haiti’s airport (July ‘09, January ‘10), its National Palace (August ‘09, November ‘10), and Pétionville (August ‘09, November ‘10) — and contextual info in the form of a collection of Lat Long blog posts describing the mapping efforts the outfit undertook throughout 2010.

On its own, none of that — Google’s provision of images and video, a news organization’s use of it — is a huge deal: News outlets regularly make good use of Google’s trove of information, for stories big and small. But, as an experiment in collaboration, the Times’s Google-fied cross-pollination is a small reminder of the benefit that can come when news organizations take advantage of resources that lay beyond the walls of their own newsrooms — finding ways of getting there without actually going there. As Sean Carlson, Google’s manager of news industry relations, explained to me: “We’ve heard that Google Earth and Google Maps can be like helicopters in the hands of any news organization.”

The images, videos, and background info are all still available for any news outfit that wants to use them. A good thing, because, today’s 365-day news peg notwithstanding, the story of Haiti’s devastation isn’t over. The quake created 20 million cubic feet of debris. A year later, only 5 percent of that has been cleared.

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