Stephen Debique, a student from Trinidad, carefully removed the screws from the digital camera, trying not to destroy it in the process. His hands shook a little as he hesitated just before popping the hot-filter off the heart of the machine with exactly the correct amount of pressure. After a few minutes of nervous reassembly, Stephen and several others had successfully modified off-the-shelf $49 cameras to take infrared (IR) images instead of regular images in the visible light spectrum.

IR images are useful in determining how much photosynthesis is happening in an area and have traditionally been used by governments, universities and niche photographers due to entry barriers and higher costs. But a combination of sharing skills and inexpensive cameras for modification removed the barriers to entry, giving Asheville, N.C.-based members of the Public Laboratory research community the ability to capture this type of valuable data.

About six others from outside Asheville traveled there over an October weekend at an event organized by the Public Laboratory and hosted by RiverLink, an Asheville-based environmental nonprofit. The gathering, dubbed a “Barnraising,” was consistent with Public Lab’s efforts to partner with existing organizations in need of technical data while democratizing existing technologies. The Barnraising moniker was chosen to represent the community atmosphere of a large group assembling to do a sizable amount of work at a low cost.

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With a little help from Public Lab’s Jeff Warren, Stephen Debique modifies a $49 camera to take pictures in infrared.

balloon-mapping missions

Using the IR technology paired with visible cameras, the weekend consisted of two balloon-mapping missions: one in the polluted, industrial stretches of the French Broad River and the other at local, organic Thatchmore Farm.

The French Broad River mission involved 20 local volunteers in addition to the Barnraising participants, which resulted in hundreds of high-resolution visible and IR images that have been uploaded to MapMill.org and sorted by the Public Laboratory digital community. Community-produced maps are beginning to appear at MapKnitter.org as well.

The images are of interest due to the environmental adversities faced by urban river corridors in Asheville and across the world: heavy metals pollution, shipping industries, brown field sites, and relaxed and weakly enforced environmental regulations. The images show discernible differences in vegetation across the area.

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Volunteers from RiverLink meld with Asheville-based community members by mapping sections of urban river.

farm mapping

A day after the French Broad River mission, the crew met Tom and Karen of Thatchmore Farm for a morning mapping session. The motivation for mapping the organic farm was slightly different than the rivers of the day before. Although examining photosynthesis levels during various growing seasons is of interest for crop productivity, Thatchmore Farm fails to meet some area requirements to receive tax cuts, despite Tom and Karen having farmed there for more than a decade.

The farm has more than five acres in production, but due to the mountainous topography, the overhead area calculated in mapping software used by the government comes in at less than that size.

Enter the DIY/hacker community and an unexpected partner: Photosynth. Developed by Microsoft, Photosynth allows scores of digital images to be mosaicked in an automated process that can also be used to generate a three-dimensional surface.

Using the aerial photos from Thatchmore Farm, work is currently underway to produce the model of Thatchmore Farm topography. Public Laboratory community members Nathan Craig and Leif Percifield have had success with this technique in Pennsylvania and New York, respectively, and the goal for Tom and Karen is a more accurate area calculation that might make a big difference on their taxes.

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A bird’s eye view of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester, N.C., will help proprietors Tom and Karen with planning — and hopefully earn them a tax break.

In addition to having a ton of fun, the group successfully engaged the local Asheville community in environmental and economic sustainability issues. You can follow the efforts of the research community in the form of maps, research notes, photos, and more.

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