Saving the Gulf with Helium, String and a Digital Camera

Also published on The Huffington Post

On top of the online reporting system for damage from the BP spill we looked at earlier, here’s more crowdsourcing from the Gulf: a group called Grassroots Mapping is helping folks on the coast map the extent and at least some of the effects of the oil slick. The tools? A digital camera, a big kite or a helium balloon, and a really, really long piece of string. As founder Jeffrey Yoo Warren laid out in a crowd-pleasing presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum conference last week, the group helps local activists assemble $100 kits that will let them take extremely detailed photographs of a given area using a consumer-grade digital camera hung from a kite or balloon suspended as high as several thousand feet in the air.

Why? The resulting images are millions of times more detailed than what’s available from commercial satellites, allowing spotters to count individual birds at risk from a particular tendril of the slick. And since the Grassroots Mapping system uses GPS data to locate the images precisely and stitch them together, the results can be added to Google Earth or any other position-based system or layered with data. For a glimpse of possibilities, check out the video below, and note that the Grassroots Mapping image is the size of a SINGLE PIXEL at the resolution Google Earth has of the open ocean. Also note the boat, which was the anchor for the aerial camera used for the shoot.

For more about about the Grassroots Mapping project, you can check out this piece from plus their fundraising pitch on Kickstarter (video below). Pretty damn cool all around.


Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles