Case Study: Grassroots Mapping

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On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. For the next four months, crude oil spewed into the ocean; soon, it began to encroach on the coastline. On May 6, an oil sheen was discovered in the Chandeleur Chain of islands; on May 19, oil hit Louisiana’s mainland shore.

Between April 20 and May 6, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil dispersed into the Gulf, capable of traversing the fifty miles from the offshore rig to the mainland. Over those four weeks, cause turned into consequence: oil progressed from being “out there” to “right here,” threatening to impact the lives and livelihoods of citizens all along the coast. Who could be trusted to document that progression honestly?

Twelve days after the explosion, a graduate student at MIT proposed an answer: the citizens of the Gulf Coast could trust themselves. On May 2, he sent a note to the Grassroots Mapping mailing list, a then-nascent community of technologists, activists, and educators interested in aerial mapping using low-cost kites and balloons.

Subject: [grassrootsmapping] Can we assist in mapping the oil slick?

Hey all; what do you think? Is there a way we can help with a citizen mapping effort? Or will there be plenty of mapping already? Can we do open source maps and offer an alternative source as a way to keep BP honest?

Does anyone live near the slick? In driving range? Ideas, thoughts?

Three days later, Jeff and his collaborator Oliver Yeh departed Boston for New Orleans.

The Grassroots Mapping trip to New Orleans sparked a community effort, which led to a Kickstarter project, through which a small citizen mapping movement became something much bigger. But before any of that could happen, they first had to board the plane.

In college, Jeff studied architecture. “There was a class called Mapping Space,” he remembers. “And it doesn’t really feel like me to be inspired by an undergraduate class, but it was a really good one, and it was just endless, endless, endless old-fashioned drawing.”

So, Jeff drew. He drew a series of maps of coffee, “at scales from the global scale to the scale of coffee moving around inside of a cell, and every stage in-between.” But Jeff was also a programmer, and so he decided to try “drawing” in code, as well. He got into web mapping, and did a project on arms flow, inspired by conversations with Natalie Jeremijenko. Jeff was just starting to think about “the information maps expose, rather than just thinking of them as this neutral way of organizing the world,” and it was Jeremijenko who pushed him to “examine where information comes from and who makes it, and to think about the agenda behind any information.”

Next came Cartagen, a web-based framework for viewing map data. It was “kind of abstract,” Jeff admits, “but it did have kind of the seed of an idea of democratization, because it allowed people to make maps that looked unique, and told a story.” But he soon ran up against a roadblock:

I got really frustrated, because eventually it boiled down to: all the maps in the world come from, essentially, satellites. And no one owns satellites. So it was this whole power relation thing that I was very interested in. And I was reading a lot of science, technology, and society work…and so it started to make sense that people should be able to produce their own information.

In the fall 2009, while Jeff was his second year of his master’s degree program at MIT, all of those interests collided in a series of experiments with balloon photography. Jeff took his first aerial photo on November 11, 2009, by attaching a cheap camera to a red balloon.

The very first grassroots mapping balloon kit
The very first grassroots mapping balloon kit

Two days later, on November 13, Jeff created the Grassroots Mapping mailing list and wrote the first post. A week later, Jeff was already on the third test run. In a blog post titled “Grassroots Mapping: Balloon test #3 success,” Jeff related the story and shared pictures:

Josh Levinger of GroundTruth and I tested our larger 8 foot balloon yesterday, and it was a huge success! We ran all the way through our spool of string, and got some great images before the light got too dim. I rectified them using Map Warper (fantastic!) and we now have a mostly continuous ‘scan’ of our flight.

This means this can be a viable way to capture high-resolution geolocated imagery at low cost! I spent under $100 on the equipment – $30 for the balloon, $40 for the camera, $5 for the helium, and a few bucks for string. I bet it could be done for under $50 with a cheaper camera and perhaps trash bags instead of latex balloons. We’ll be trying that soon – I’d guess we need about 10 of these 98-gallon bags. […]

I’m excited to test this in an area that really does not have good aerial imagery, like outside Lima, Peru.

Photo by Christina Xu
Photo by Christina Xu

In December, Jeff and Josh Levinger put these experiments into action on a trip to Umm Salamuna, a village along the West Bank, where activists were planting trees. They “launched a small soft kite with an iPod nano attached to it” to take photos.

Jeff and citizens in Umm Salamuna
Jeff and citizens in Umm Salamuna

“The mapping was a big success,” Jeff wrote afterward—”everyone ‘got’ why we were doing it, that documenting the tree planting and how they’re changing the landscape is a form of testimony.”

In January, Jeff traveled to Lima, Peru with Seth Hunter to lead a month-long series of workshops that would teach inhabitants of settlements (called “invasions” in Peru) how to create aerial maps of the areas they’d claimed, to be submitted to the government as a first step toward official recognition.

Before the workshops in Lima began, Jeff had to find helium and balloons
Before the workshops in Lima began, Jeff had to find helium and balloons

Once the month in Peru was over, Jeff returned to Boston. While there, Jeff experimented with using trash bags instead of balloons, began working on an illustrated guide to grassroots mapping with balloons, prototyped a kite/balloon hybrid, visited California to participate in WhereCamp 2010, and led balloon mapping workshops at the Beaver Country Day School near Boston. 

Jeff and Stewart Long also applied for—and in April 2010, received—a $1,000 grant from Boston’s Awesome Foundation to advance Grassroots Mapping. Their specific proposal that they would “collaborate with a group of environmental activists in West Virginia, who are protesting mountaintop mining operations…to map the environmental damage and health hazards with aerial photographs.”

But then, on April 20, Deepwater Horizon exploded and oil started spewing. The mapmakers couldn’t look away.

On May 2, 2010, when Jeff asked the dozens of members of the Grassroots Mapping mailing list: “Can we assist in mapping the oil slick?”, he set in motion a thread that ran to 28 posts by 10 different participants. Some offered ideas and connections; others offered on-the-ground assistance. A loose network of people bound together by a common interest in citizen cartography had been called to attention.

The next day, Jeff posted a new thread: “summary of oil slick map thoughts.”

OK -

I emailed a few local orgs (that i'd posted to the list earlier) to see if we can have a local partner. They'll know infinitely more about the situation on the ground and the needs.

Then if we can get some funding together, (I'll chip in some) Stewart Long or someone else there for now. Kate will be there May 8th-12th, so basically we'd want to get a 4-day round trip ticket there from Oakland.

We should also reach out to local KAP folks. That's a huge expert community who could really help out, and beaches in general are good places to fly, no?

So the last thing is to unequivocally establish a need - this can most likely come from folks along the gulf coast, but we continue to learn about the open-access data situation.


They moved fast: on May 4, Jeff posted an update on the mailing list:

Oliver and I just booked flights to arrive in New Orleans (louis armstrong airport) at ~10:30am tomorrow. We'll be meeting ASAP with Anne from [LA Bucket Brigade] who was astonished and very excited to find out what we're hoping to do. I reserved a 4-door car.

Reflecting on the snap decision to leave Boston for New Orleans, Jeff recalls:

It was a bit of a whirlwind. But tickets to New Orleans, at least at the time, were like $250 round-trip. So it was a no-brainer. We had the money from Awesome Foundation, and we just did it. I think I submitted receipts to MIT for some of it, because the Center for Civic Media was helping out a lot, and I was in the program there at the time. So we made it work.

The next morning, Jeff and Oliver Yeh — a recent MIT grad with experience in low-cost, high-altitude ballooning — boarded the plane to New Orleans. Their flight arrived on May 5 at 10:30am. Within three hours of touching down, Jeff had posted an update and call to action on his personal blog:

Hi, all – Oliver Yeh and I are down in New Orleans now trying to meet up with local organizers to begin an independent, grassroots ground-truthing/mapping of the spill.
To be clear – we’re not trying to duplicate the satellite imagery or the flyover data (though we’re helping to coordinate some of the flyovers and trying to make sure the data is publicly accessible). We believe it’s possible for citizens to use balloons, kites, and other simple and inexpensive tools to produce their own documentation of the spill… and that such imagery will be essential for environmental and legal reasons in coming years. […]

Please, if you’re involved in the response, and live near the spill, call me at [phone number], email me at [address], and tell us where to come to help you document what’s going on!

At the same time, Jeff posted to the mailing list:

Oliver and I are in New Orleans now connecting with local orgs to get out tomorrow early on a boat and start imaging. Folks at (Gulf Restoration Network) and LA Bucket Brigade have been very excited and we're hoping to piggyback on one of their expeditions.

We're headed out now to buy helium and supplies but if anyone is in touch with folks who are headed out tomorrow morning and would be willing to take us as well, that'd be super.

Jeff and Oliver had arrived just in time:

The very first time we went out on the water it was in a police boat, and it was completely pristine. You know, things had been destroyed a lot by Katrina, but it was an extremely healthy ecosystem. It was really beautiful…birds everywhere. So there was a sense of urgency, because we were maybe 36 hours ahead of oil hitting.

The next day, May 6, Jeff and Oliver went on their first mapping expedition. By posting his Google Voice phone number publicly online, Jeff had extended an invitation for people to contact him out of the blue:

We would get random calls from random people at random times, and so suddenly, someone called and said, "I have a boat! Come meet me in Lafourche Parish Port Commission Headquarters.”

So we drove down and it's, like, two hours away from New Orleans going south, and then this guy showed up…[and] he was like, "You guys can go and get aerial photography of the coastline?" And we're like, well, we don't know how much of it, but we'll try. And he's like, "and how much is it gonna cost?" And we're like, “well, we're just gonna do it. Can you help us with a boat? That's all we really want.”

And he came out and he looked at our trunk and we had these tanks of helium, and this string, and we looked like crazy people. And then he was like, oh: okay. Let's do it.

That evening, Jeff recounted the police boat trip and emphasized the importance of participation:

We just got back from a kite mapping session on a boat supplied by the Lafourche port commission, which ill write about shortly (photos etc soon, I'm in a car right now). […]

Our main priority is to bring people out and do this with them - we really need to increase the number of people who can do this kind of mapping for when the oil comes ashore in quantity. We have supplies and cameras, now we need boats and mappers.

On May 7, as promised, he posted about the experience on his blog:

A bit of an update – on Thursday we went down to Grand Isle and met up with folks from Priority5 and the Greater Lafourche Port Commission who fed us delicious food and managed to get us out on a boat near sunset. We focused on testing the theory (suggested on the mailing list at some point) that we could tow a kite even in low winds… and amazingly it worked. The light was failing however and we did not get a lot of imagery. That stuff was posted this morning (gosh it seems like a million years ago).

Launching a kite from a small boat
Launching a kite from a small boat

Meanwhile, after wracking her brain trying to figure out how to help out from New York, Liz Barry set up a situation room with her students at the New School. As Jeff remembers,

She organized her students in a 24-hour calling center…a cross between a command center and a concierge. So we could be like, can you find some helium within two miles of our current location? And then they'd be like—[typing noises]—and they would find it.

That same morning, Jeff met with volunteers at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade “to plan a teaching strategy to increase the number of mappers and to make sure local folks were able to do balloon/kite mapping.”

Morning planning at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Morning planning at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade

The training took place the next day, May 8, on the lawn of City Park in New Orleans. Kristian Hansen of local video production company was on hand to document the training session, and posted a video based on the session less than a week later:

It was through the Louisiana Bucket Brigade that Jeff first met Shannon Dosemagen, who quickly became essential to the organizing the volunteer effort. Shannon jumped right in, joining a group of volunteers on their May 9 trip to map the Chandeleur Islands.

Oil off of the Chandeleur Islands
Oil off of the Chandeleur Islands

Remembering that day, Shannon later wrote:

The first time I went out to aerial map after the spill was right after the 3,000 foot flight cap was added. After a boat ride where we got swamped by waves and passed fishing trawlers converted to cleaning vessels, we went to the Chandeleur islands and saw the streaks of oil coming in and smelled the chemicals that they were using. This was probably one of the most important trips to me. I was on a boat in the water and could see dispersed oil surrounding the boat and smell the fumes, but after looking at the incredible set of images we captured from an aerial perspective, I had a whole new perspective on what the Gulf was facing.

Birds on Chandeleur
Birds on Chandeleur

By the next Wednesday, May 12, Jeff was back in Boston. He wrote a post for PBS’s Idea Lab reflecting on the past week’s work:

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.

Oil off the Chandeleur Islands from a plane
Oil off the Chandeleur Islands from a plane

With Shannon jumping in to organize volunteers all along the Gulf Coast, Jeff and Oliver returned to Boston to focus on the logistics of scaling up the operation. “I went back to MIT,” Jeff remembers,

And then I started doing a lot of the stitching and data management and trying to post stuff and organize it so people could get it…I was calling and trying to do the [logistics] part. Which is not as fun or glamorous, but I hope it’s what helped it scale—along with Shannon’s tireless actual driving around and organizing and getting tanks of helium.

Also, since Stewart Long and Jeff had committed to a trip to West Virginia to help environmental activists there map mountaintop mining operations, that trip had to take place in May, too. It was a busy month.

Toward the end of the month, Jeff and the rest of the Grassroots Mapping team began to explore the idea of launching a Kickstarter project to help fund continued mapping efforts along the Gulf. Kristian Hansen’s videography efforts during the initial mapping trip once again proved crucial. As Jeff recalls,

Kristian was out there in the car a lot with us, driving to different places and shooting film…he made the entire Kickstarter video, which is amazing…He cut it and then basically: it was wonderful.

Based on the strength of the video and their awareness of the acute ongoing need, the Grassroots Mapping team decided to take the plunge.

On May 28, 2010, Jeff Warren launched a Kickstarter project for Grassroots Mapping the Gulf Oil Spill with Balloons and Kites with a $5,000 goal. “We need support to keep a supply of helium, and to pay for gas, kites, cameras, and protective gear for our volunteers,” he explained in the project description.The next day, Jeff posted to the Grassroots Mapping mailing list:

Hey folks - I just posted this on the blog, but we could really use some help getting the word out to raise some money for Louisiana Bucket Brigade and all the volunteers down on the Gulf coast. We're trying to pay for gas, helium, kites, and whatever we need to keep capturing such great map data…

Jeff posted the first project update on Kickstarter on June 3, announcing that they’d added an oil spill photo from their aerial mapping attempts to the Deepwater Horizon Wikipedia article.

He also noted:

The team at Louisiana Bucket Brigade just ran out of balloons, so we're sending down 4 more ($30 each). They now have 2 kites ($110 each) and 3 cameras ($80 each). Your support is going to help enormously!

And he described a new system they’d been working on: “We've also figured out a way to send balloons up to 4000 ft using a power drill and a more compact, stronger reel.”

New reel, from Project Update #1
New reel, from Project Update #1

That same day, the Grassroots Mapping project reached its $5,000 goal, supported by 56 backers (one of whom had been moved by the project’s video to push it over the top with a major pledge).

The next day, June 4, Jeff spoke at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.

Showing stitched-together pictures in the presentation, he said:

You can actually see the string going down from the camera to the boat. We can remove that, and we do usually, but it's nice sometimes to see the physical connection between yourself in picture, down below, and the camera above.

He also mentioned the Kickstarter campaign, and showed a screenshot of Grassroots Mapping highlighted on the homepage. Of the $5,110 they’d raised already, he said:

It's a pretty small amount of money, but what we're doing is not expensive, so actually we're overjoyed that we've raised that much.

On June 9, Nick Bilton wrote an article on Grassroots Mapping for the New York Times Bits Blog mentioning that the project was on Kickstarter. Between that day and the next, the project gained $1,000 from 20 new backers.

In the next project update, sent on June 12, Jeff updated the project’s 111 backers on progress and asked for their help in spreading the word:

Thanks again for your support; we have 9 days left and I wanted to ask you all to help get the word out for a final push for funding, as well as update you all on our latest imagery and maps.

The update featured another coastline photo stitched together by Stewart Long, a video of two volunteers launching a balloon, and an update on supplies — balloons were popping, so Jeff had ordered a more durable one intended for long-term use. (It was red, and six feet wide.)

New map of Isle Grand Terre, from Project Update #2
New map of Isle Grand Terre, from Project Update #2

Jeff sent the third update three days before the close of the campaign, sharing a new map of the Mississippi coast before oil hit:

Map of Long Beach, Mississippi, pre-oil
Map of Long Beach, Mississippi, pre-oil

With the huge volumes of data pouring in to Grassroots Mapping HQ, it was a struggle to process them all. Jeff took the opportunity to ask for backers’ help:

There's also a new way to contribute to the project: it's called MapMill, and it's basically a Hot or Not for our oil spill imagery. We spend a lot of time sorting through imagery to find good, clear, straight-down images, and we're asking everyone to chip in a bit of their time to speed this process up.

On June 20, Jeff sent a fourth update noting that there were just 28 hours left on the campaign and sharing some new images, including a new map of Perdido Point stitched together, once again, by Stewart Long:

Perdido Point, from Project Update #4
Perdido Point, from Project Update #4

The photographs that made up the map came from an unexpected source. Jeff wrote:

The really stunning part of this map is that the images were submitted by someone we weren't working with - Don and Justin Blancher, who heard a talk about our efforts and simply went out and did it. We were surprised and a little confused when they emailed us asking where to upload the images, and when we actually saw them we were blown away. So many thanks to them for taking such initiative!

On June 21, 2010, the Grassroots Mapping project to map the Gulf oil spill closed with $8,285 pledged by 145 backers — 165% of its original goal.

That $8,285 covered supplies necessary for the Gulf Coast mapping effort not only for the summer of 2010 — over the course of which hundreds of volunteers got involved — but for years to come.

According to Jeff, “Ultimately, there was just a fund which was used to essentially refuel helium, buy new balloons, buy cameras — all of the equipment. And it lasted an extremely long time.” Shannon Dosemagen, who has continued to manage the volunteer effort on the ground, confirmed: “To do all these mappings…we’ve really only had to use three kits, and we’ve just migrated them between different areas.”

Grassroots mapping trip, July 22
Grassroots mapping trip, July 22

Though reaching their funding goal was certainly cause for celebration, the project’s success was juxtaposed with the ongoing troubles in the Gulf. Volunteers continued to go out on mapping trips to document the oil slick’s advancement; on June 22, Lauren Craig of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade wrote a blog post titled “Nuance in the Art of Kite Mapping” that detailed an attempted trip to Grand Isle:

Since May, volunteers and staff from the LABB have been working with students from MIT’s media lab on an aerial photography mapping project. The Gulf Oil Spill Mapping project is so simple that it baffles people: attach a basic camera to a kite or weather ballon and set it to automatically take a picture every 5, 10 or 20 seconds. Let the rig out 1000 feet and cover as much coastline as you can. The photos are then sent to some smart guys at MIT (including the project’s fearless leader, Jeff Warren) who then stitch the photos together pixel by pixel and georeference them to make a map.

They’d been able to capture a map of Grand Isle on May 27, the day after oil hit. So on Thursday, June 17, the group had hitched a ride with Greenpeace to go back:

The boat ride from the Bridgeside Marina on Grand Isle to the fort at Grand Terre was slow. The entire bay is essentially a no-wake zone. In addition, there are larger oil-soaked fishing and shrimping boats constantly leaving and arriving at the docks of the Sand Dollar Marina at the eastern end of the island. Booms set up around Queen Bess island and large barges transporting tanker trucks present further navigational challenges. When we finally got to the island, we saw that the clean-up operations had been effective on the beach–the four-inch thick pools of oil were gone. But, thick, brown and orange oil remained trapped in the rock jetties and the marsh grasses surrounding them. Standing on the jetty, I looked down through the spaces in the rocks at pools of oil and brown frothy mess.

It is difficult to imagine how, or if, it can ever been cleaned up.

Photo from post by Lauren Craig
Photo from post by Lauren Craig

On August 4, 2010, BP reported that the well had reached “static condition.” The full story wouldn’t be over for years to come, but thanks to the efforts of the Grassroots Mapping volunteer network, the bigger picture would be documented—chapter by chapter.


Grassroots Mapping told the story of the oil spill, but telling the story of Grassroots Mapping itself fell to Jeff: as part of his master’s degree at MIT’s Center for the Future of Civic Media, he wrote a 115-page thesis documenting the community’s work over its first year.

Bonds formed through the experience of mapping the oil spill also led to the founding of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science in fall 2010:

As activists and educators from around the world began joining the Grassroots Mapping community, seven co-founders decided to formalize Grassroots Mapping in Fall 2010 as part of a broader organization, Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS). This has resulted in a new generation of tools which we are now testing at sites across the US and beyond. Our online tools for analysis, open-source research documentation, and collaboration, as well as our strong emphasis on face-to-face workshops has helped us to work with a variety of new communities, in West Virginia, Boston, New York, and Peru.

Reflecting on varied understandings of Public Laboratory’s purpose, Jeff said:

When different people see Public Laboratory, some people see an environmental justice community, and some people see like a maker community, and some people see an open-source community. And the three are not really the same thing, but they're all different facets of what we're trying to do.

In part as a result of their efforts in the Gulf, Public Laboratory received a Knight News Challenge grant in June 2011 to continue their work.

Just as Public Laboratory operated on multiple levels, the power of Grassroots Mapping came from its ability to provide connection on multiple levels—between citizens and their communities; between the ground and the air; between water and land; between people. In an interview with Nick Bilton for the May 2010 article on Bits blog, Jeff reflected on this intensity of connection:

Mr. Warren said his approach to taking photos offered a more human view of the devastation. “My favorite part about this project is that it really does make more sense to fly a kite with a camera on it than to try to take pictures of where you are all the way from space,” he said. “You’re literally holding the camera thousands of feet in the air with a string — it’s a very visceral experience.”


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