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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Several groups in the NYC area are using PLOTS tools including balloon mapping to document at-risk ecological sites.

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.