Saturday, June 5, 2010

Citizens Rising

Here's another new start-up that aims to empower citizens affected by the BP oil spill. It's called, and it's aiming to help Gulf Coast residents take high-resolution, aerial photographs of the spill. The goal: to compile an ongoing public record of the spill and its impact.

"There's been a kind of media blackout of the spill and it's tough to see what's actually going on," Founder Jeffrey Yoo Warren told people attending the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum this week in New York. "These maps create documentation that can be used as evidence in the legal arena and help focus resources in clean-up efforts in the weeks and months ahead."

Warren, a fellow at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media, described his New Orleans-based nonprofit to PDF attendees and a VC panel that included tech angels Esther Dyson and Craig Newmark, the founder of "Our idea," Warren said, "is to get a lot of people involved in producing digital maps of the spill that can be shared, Wikipedia-style."

Since early May, the nonprofit has been assembling and distributing free citizens' mapping kits that each contain a helium canister, a balloon, an inexpensive Canon mini-camera, and an array of simple household items, including a $3 roll of cotton string. The cameras, programmed to shoot a new frame every 5 seconds, "produce imagery so detailed, that we can count animals on the ground and count the vegetation," Warren said.

Once the images are captured by citizen mappers, they are geo-referenced and stitched into online composite maps, where they get overlayed onto Google and become viewable in Google Earth and OpenLayers. The images appear at 10,000 times the resolution of daily satellite images posted online by NASA, Warren says -- and at a price of roughly $230 per kit, they cost far less to produce. "By creating open-source mapping tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we are giving citizens affected bythe spill some power in this crisis," Warren told PDF attendees. "all of the imagery we capture is owned by the residents who shot it."

Warren is working with another new oil spill start-up in the region, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is making a crisis map of the disaster. The LBB is helping Warren to distribute the Grassroots Mapping kits to as many residents of coastline towns and cities as possible.

Over the past five days, Grassroots Mapping, founded in January originally to produce citizen maps of the Lima slums in Peru, has raised more than $5,000 for the Gulf project via Kickstarter. [Immediately after pitching to the PDF crowd on Friday afternoon, Grassroots Mapping had raised nearly $495 more.] Said Dyson: "It's nice to see something that is not totally digital. That's what we (investors) want to see -- simple, low-cost applications of existing technology to empower citizens to make change." Added Newmark: "This is like something out of a Cory Doctorow novel, about how the street finds its uses for technology." PDF co-founder Andrew Rasiej put it more philosophically. "There has always been the fear that the government would be Big Brother," he said. "But this (start-up) is an example of how we are Big Brother; Big Brother is you."

For more on Grassroots Mapping, here's a short video that Warren produced on the project:

What do you think? Can citizen mapping projects help citizens to hold authorities accountable in times of crisis? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Jayesh Illustration for

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