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Last week, as the mainstream press reported on the worsening environmental and economic crisis that is the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf Coast, I and a small group of DIY mappers flew down to New Orleans to coordinate a grassroots, citizen effort to map the spill. Instead of helicopters and satellites, we deployed a new generation of low-cost tools, including weather balloons and kites with cameras attached.

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Since arriving, we’ve managed to mobilize small teams of Gulf Coast residents. Thanks to the fishermen and charter boat captains whose livelihood is at stake, we’ve been able to get teams out on boats almost every day. Taken from balloons at as high as 1500 feet, our photography is of higher resolution and greater coverage than much of what the press has, and we’re now coordinating a nationwide effort to stitch the imagery into map overlays, which will be viewable in Google Earth as well as more traditional GIS tools. Most importantly, the data we are collecting is released into the public domain and is available for free here.

Quantifying the Destruction

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Our efforts at building an independent data set of spill imagery is sure to be important for any potential litigation and the decades of environmental remediation and recovery that are ahead. For this reason, we’ve spent time mapping coastal areas such as Fourchon which have not yet been hit by oil (but likely will be by today). This before-and-after data will help to quantify the destruction. The image resolution we’re working with — often good enough to see individual animals and plants — can provide specific evidence of the losses to the local ecology.

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What’s particularly alarming to me about the cleanup and response is that it’s largely organized by British Petroleum. When I called the main volunteer hotline and asked who was on the other end, I was shocked to find out it was a company employee. Because while BP is incentivized to do a good job cleaning up, they probably aren’t all that interested in producing good, quantifiable documentation of the damage. Fortunately, it doesn’t take million-dollar equipment to produce this kind of evidence — our kits cost less than $200 each.

The Team

Our crack team of low-cost mappers included Oliver Yeh, a recent MIT graduate who’s used balloons to take pictures at up to 100,000 feet, and Stewart Long, who takes pictures from remote control airplanes and used balloons imagery last year to make a map of Burning Man.

Of course, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything without our fantastic local partners at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental group that has spearheaded the citizen response to the spill. They are coordinating with Tulane University, in addition to running an Ushahidi system to track the spill by crowdsourced text messages. As people send in reports of oil-covered birds or tar balls coming ashore, we can dispatch a team to capture imagery of the site from over 1000 feet in the air.

Join Us

Our main priority at the moment is to conduct training sessions to make sure volunteers are ready — not just to use the balloons and kites, but to lead trips. If you’re interested in volunteering, read more and sign up at our Gulf oil spill page.

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