From Grassroots Mapping to One Satellite Per Child

There were some amazing presentations at Where 2.0, but for me personally, Jeffrey Warren’s talk on Community-based Grassroots Mapping with Balloons and Kites in Lima was the most exciting. Jeffrey and his colleagues were inspired by two MIT undergraduate students who “launched a digital camera into near-space to take photographs of the earth from high up above.”

Jeff and colleague traveled to Lima in January 2010 to work with children and adults from several communities to bring a truly participatory (and fun!) approach to mapping.

Seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography, the grassroots mappers used helium balloons and kites to loft their own “community satellites” made with inexpensive digital cameras. The resulting images, which are owned by the residents, are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost.

In some cases these maps may be used to support residents’ claims to land title. By creating open-source tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we hopes to enable a diverse set of alternative agendas and practices, and to emphasize the fundamentally narrative and subjective aspects of mapping over its use as a medium of control.

Once several pictures have been taken, they can be “stitched together” to form a map like the one below. The stitching can be done by hand or using this neat tool.

All it takes is $100 for the equipment below. In fact, you could even use $1.30 trash bags instead to reduce the cost. I highly recommend looking through this fun illustrated guide.

I also like how the communities used tracing paper to annotate the maps they produced from the balloons. This is something I had wanted to do for this community mapping project in the Sudan.

I absolutely love this project. It’s easy, cheap, participatory, empowering and fun. Jeff and company are democratizing aerial mapping. I’d love to see this approach take off all over the world and would like to find some use cases in the humanitarian context, e.g., in post-disaster reconstruction and development. Imagine if local communities in Haiti could use balloon mapping to hold the development community accountable for the way their own country is being rebuilt. This approach can democratize urban planning in post-disaster environments.

Do check out the Grassroots Mapping website. You can also sign up for the group’s mailing list. If you’re in the Boston area, you may want to join Jeffrey and friends for some balloon mapping excercises. I definitely will! In the meantime, check out Jeff’s Ignite Talk from the 2009 CrisisMappers Conference.

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “From Grassroots Mapping to One Satellite Per Child

  1. Yeah! Go Jeff! His under-loved Flickr stream is one of the best ways to keep in touch with what he is working on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffreywarren/

  2. This is small but brilliant example of the power of in-situ innovation… again I don’t want to go into too much detail, but if this kind of intersection floats your boat then you might want to be involved with our next big project too.

  3. Pingback: Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs | iRevolution

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