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Proposals Prix Ars 2011

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Grassroots Mapping is a community of activist cartographers using open-source tools such as helium-filled balloons and digital cameras to generate high resolution “DIY satellite” maps. Though grassroots mappers hail from places as diverse as the West Bank and the Russian border of Georgia, our biggest project has taken place along the Gulf of Mexico, where scores of Gulf Coast residents produced dozens of aerial maps of the BP oil spill. By releasing the data into the public domain to ensure open access, we made it possible for organizations such as CNN, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and even Google Maps to republish our data during the BP media blackout, when conventional journalists were blocked from affected beaches.

Grassroots Mapping has grown into a broader community of citizen scientists, which builds on the success of our balloon mapping to invent new tools for citizen-based, grassroots environmental and public health data gathering and research. The new initiative, called the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), develops and advocates for accessible, open-source technologies for community investigation of their local environmental health and justice issues. As part of this process, PLOTS provides an online research space at, to connect residents, activists, scientists, social scientists, and technologists.

To diversify, support, sustain and aggregate community-led information gathering to transform the process and definition of environmental research, we work in collaboration with local groups to generate citizen science tools that are responsive and adaptable to local needs and constraints. We are already developing and testing our first generation of new DIY tools, including an infrared camera for measuring photosynthesis and plant health, a toxin hunting tool built on the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and a portable spectrometer for analyzing environmental contaminants.


Citizen science, participatory research, community-based, do-it-yourself, do-it-with-others, mapping, monitoring, environmental justice, toxics, endocrine disruption, climate change, environmental remediation, open-source software, open-source hardware, open data

Project History

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The Grassroots Mapping community was founded by Jeffrey Warren, then a graduate student at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, in 2009. The project began in Lima, Peru where Jeff worked with communities and activists to produce maps to support land tenure claims. In May 2010, members of the already growing Grassroots Mapping community joined with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to begin environmental monitoring of the BP Oil Spill with the balloon mapping kit. In collaboration with Shannon Dosemagen, Adam Griffith, and others, the Gulf Coast branch of the project has grown to over a hundred volunteers and activists who have produced dozens of data sets since the spill.

As activists and educators from around the world began joining the Grassroots Mapping community, we decided to formalize Grassroots Mapping as part of a broader organization, PLOTS. This has resulted in a new generation of tools which we are now testing at new 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.

Currently we have projects and partners in the Gulf Coast region, North Carolina, West Virginia, California, Oregon, New York, Boston, Providence and Lima, Peru. Our work with community groups in these regions provides a connection point to a larger web of NGOs and an existing network of grassroots participants including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Environmental Working Group, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Coal River Mountain Watch,, Saberes Nomadas, Boston Climate Action Network, and OpenMapsCaucasus. In the last two months we have additionally been invited to lead mapping programs in Salt Lake, Utah, Butte, Montana, Lome, Togo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Nairobi, Kenya.


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By developing and deploying investigative, DIY tools, we help citizens become more than mere observers in their environments. The tools which we develop and provide allow communities to critically engage in identifying and addressing environmental concerns. We provide materials, knowledge, and support for communities to do environmental monitoring but have also spearheaded an inclusive program to engage communities in refining and improving the tools and training methods.

As the first mature tool in our repertoire, balloon mapping is specifically tailored for local, participatory use -- and is resistant by design to adoption by large corporations or governments. The design decisions which make our balloon mapping techniques appropriate for detailed maps of specific sites, by residents, are exactly those which make them difficult for Google or the Pentagon to employ. This emphasizes our role in supporting local experience and environmental knowledge.

In a society which is increasingly recycling and reblogging information produced by a dwindling field of independent journalism, this project seeks to engage communities in the process of collecting and sharing completely new information. Our web tools give local communities, educators, activists, and researchers a place to collaboratively discuss techniques, share data, and learn from experiences in other communities. This supports local experts' ability to engage with scientific experts and participate in setting environmental justice agendas in their communities.

In addition, it is our hope that the increasing gap between the scientific establishment and the broader public may be overcome, at least in part, by our more participatory and bidirectional approach. While climate change skepticism prompts many to improve science outreach and education, we believe that when the public is involved in the process of scientific investigation and knowledge production they will understand and defend both its results and its nuances.


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PLOTS’ research team combines expertise in digital media, programming, anthropology, citizen science, biology, geology, geography, art and design. Our interdisciplinary group integrates lay and expert initiatives in social and scientific fields into lasting research and data gathering collaborations. Communities affected by the problems of climate change, contamination, environmental justice, and corporate responsibility are often key innovators in solving these problems, and with that in mind, PLOTS works with local community groups to develop DIY research tools, online data collection and analysis.

Jeffrey Warren - Research Director Center for Future Civic Media Fellow, 2008-10; Partner & co-founder, Vestal Design; B.A. Yale; M.S. MIT, 2010

Liz Barry - Director of Urban Environments Director of TreeKIT; Faculty at Parsons, Pratt, Columbia. Urban designer and landscape architect, SOM 2007-09

Shannon Dosemagan - Director of Community Engagement, Education and Outreach Oil Spill Response Coordinator, Louisiana Bucket Brigade 2009-11; Grassroots Mapping Gulf Coast Coordinator; M.S. Anthropology 2009

Adam Griffith - Director of Science and Coastal Environments Director of through the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, Teach for America, 1999-2001

Stewart Long - Director of Geography and Data GonzoEarth mapping services, Grassroots Mapping Gulf Coast map processing & publication lead

Mathew Lippincott - Director of Production and Production in Education Artist and Designer, Co-Founder of Cloacina; Partner, Biluna Birotunda Design; B.A. Oberlin College

Sara Wylie - Director of Toxics and Health Research Co-Director MIT Center for Future Civic Media ExtrAct Project, ABD MIT History Anthropology Science Technology and Society, Part-time faculty RISD Digital+Media Department, B.A. University of Chicago.

Lessons Learned

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Grassroots mapping the BP oil spill has engaged a diverse community -- with and without technical expertise -- in a complex set of partnerships. Four key lessons from this project include:

  1. An unfolding disaster is a difficult time to learn new tools. New monitoring technology must be simple, flexible, and easy to understand. Tools that require high technological literacy, may not be well suited for all participants. Web-based interfaces are not intuitive for everyone, nor are they convenient to fill out in the hot sun or on remote beaches. Instead, we have decided to print logbooks, guides, and even paper maps -- working towards easing the transition between digital and analog media.

  2. Both government agencies and academia are hesitant to accept data that is collected by citizens. Our tested and accessible technology workflows enable/speed the conversion of local knowledge into high quality authoritative public data resources. We have made efforts to offer our data in standard formats -- like GeoTiff and KML -- to ease adoption, but continue to reach out to disseminate our data.

  3. One of our greatest challenges is to broaden participation not only in the collection of map data with balloons, but the process of turning the resulting images into maps. With more than 100,000 images collected over eleven months, the image sorting, processing, and compositing needed to produce maps is enormous. Closing the loop by making sure those completed maps are accessible to coastal residents -- and inviting further interpretation and analysis of the oil spill -- has become central to our initiative.

  4. It is not enough to simply record the effects of the spill. Mapmaking is traditionally a form of documentation, but it can inspire action by introducing and making legible new information about the environment. We also work with those cleaning and rebuilding coastal areas, by helping to document and interpret conditions before, during, and after human intervention in the landscape.


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In our balloon mapping kit and throughout our software and hardware tools, we emphasize legible and repeatable solutions over high tech or even "elegant" ones. For example, we have largely abandoned the use of the Canon Hacker Development Kit as a means for automatically triggering our cameras -- it was a real stumbling block for many mappers -- in favor of simply holding the trigger of the camera down with a rubber band. Likewise, our hand-illustrated guides are easier to modify, remix, and add to than digital illustrations, and their sketched quality implies that they are open to revision. Our attention to printing and distributing maps in the communities they were created speaks to our commitment to open access beyond just digital audiences.

PLOTS strives for close relationships between our various communities, often bringing technologists together with activists and community organizers. These collaborations result in tools and approaches which are a product of both technical and human concerns -- appropriate and situated technologies which play to the strengths of local experts. Our decision to rely mainly on manual stitching instead of automated techniques has proved challenging given the large volume of map data we produce -- but our community stands to learn much more about the environments we work in by carefully poring over thousands of images than by relying on algorithms or cloud computing -- and the resulting expertise is gained by a much larger group of collaborators.

All our software is open source -- as is the data we publish -- and we are working with the open source hardware community to select open source licenses to protect end users' ability to use, adapt, improve upon, and distribute our physical tools. We are working to develop our online and printed data archives a legible and comprehensive repository of citizen-sourced data -- but are simultaneously developing recommendations and suggestions for how it may be used by local residents.

Statement of Reasons

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Citizens lack the basic tools to independently assess information that is handed down to them by perceived experts, especially with regard to environmental issues. Climate change skepticism is just one manifestation of the increasing gap in trust between the science establishment and its audience – a gap which counts among its causes the inability of scientists and technologists to engage in a participatory way with everyday people.

Our DIY tools -- such as balloon mapping -- empower people to collect and interpret data themselves, bolstering communities' evaluative capacities and improving local access to critical environmental information. Our model represents a shift in how citizens interact with data: in contrast to other citizen science projects where participants are reduced to mere data points, we attempt to engage collaborators at higher levels of intellect and understanding. This allows engagement at every level of Bloom’s taxonomy from remembering concepts to analyzing and evaluating the role of an idea.

Under-resourced and under-served communities often lack the money, skills, and technology to effect change across a wide range of issues; from geographic disputes to winterizing buildings and identifying pollutants. Our project provides low-cost, easily replicable tools that help communities adapt new technologies to their particular needs and constraints. We also provide easy-to-understand training, resources, and a community of dynamic, experienced individuals to assist communities in launching their projects.

Planned Use of Prize Money

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We need support, not only to expand and improve the PLOTS toolkit, but to create a shared community space for investigating environmental issues. The first Pop-Up Public Lab will be an open-access environmental science station built in a series of mobile cases.

Spectral imaging: We have modified digital cameras to take photographs in the near infrared range, but these are still at the experimental stage. By adapting digital processing techniques used by NASA, we can produce maps of photosynthesis -- plant growth and vibrancy. We have begun using this technique on balloon flights at the Gowanus Canal Superfund cleanup site in Brooklyn, NY. (

Thermal photography: We have begun work on an inexpensive thermal camera, for producing photographs of heat to inform better home insulation. An inexpensive thermal camera (at 1/50th the cost of a commercial solution) can also monitor thermal pollution from power plants. (

Pop-Up Public Lab: While both of these tools require more resources and testing before they are ready for use, we also plan to invest in shared community infrastructure for environmental investigation. Rather than the traditionally isolated lab space, we will build a series of self-contained lab modules -- cases including equipment and even work tables -- that can be deployed and moved rapidly; a whole pop-up lab ready to inhabit and transform any space. Pop-up suitcase workstations would include secure storage and tools for testing samples, aerial imaging kits, balloon and kite building stations, map processing and printing, and web connectivity and teleconferencing. PLOTS team members will work with community partners to develop workshops and events around the Lab, and remain engaged as facilitators, but the Pop-Up Lab will allow communities greater involvement and control over monitoring processes -- from data acquisition to processing and publication.


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Though our project includes many physical goods and we make wide use of printed maps, a central tenet of our work is its reproducibility with local materials -- therefore we are attaching guides which show how to assemble two of our tools from basic materials. A full accounting of our tool kit -- from those which are mature and have been tested in the field, to experimental and speculative tools we hope hold promise for expanded environmental sensing -- is available at

In addition, our extremely large data set from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is too large to append to this application, but is available in a variety of formats at A new site, encompassing broader data collection across our new tools, and inviting the public to sift through, comment on, analyze, and interpret our open source data archive, is currently being developed and is planned for launch this coming summer at It will serve as our “response” to the Obama Administration’s web site -- an inverse of that initiative where we will host citizen-generated data for open use.

Finally, we are including community-authored entries in our Grassroots Mapping blog as well as field and lab reports from the Public Laboratory site, providing insights into the ongoing development of new tools and collaborations.

Artist Group History

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Our team has formed in a large part -- often through chance encounters -- during field work related to the BP oil spill mapping project. Stewart Long and Jeffrey Warren joined forces days after the BP oil spill, coming to New Orleans to produce maps with local nonprofits. Current PLOTS member Shannon Dosemagen became the Gulf Coast lead on the project while working on the oil spill through the nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Adam Griffith joined while producing aerial photography of Louisiana coastlines through Western Carolina University.

Other members launched projects and initiatives in new sites; Portland-based Mathew Lippincott organized workshops to assemble balloon kits and ship them to Gulf Coast volunteers, and Liz Barry collaborated with Brooklyn-based activists to begin a monitoring of the Gowanus Canal Superfund cleanup. Sara Wylie, whose work with communities, scientists, lawyers and activists developing web-tools for collective monitoring of gas and oil extraction is a natural match for PLOTS, co-leads the Environmental Justice research cluster at the Rhode Island School of Design with Jeff Warren, working with students to prototype PLOTS tools.

While these seven members represent many of the leaders of the Grassroots Mapping and Public Laboratory communities, we often play mainly a facilitating role -- taking care of web site maintenance, coordinating events, and developing support materials. Many other active and central members of the community have been essential in the progress we have made and the data we have collected, as in any open-source community. We hope that by embracing an open and distributed model, and by drawing on lessons from both the activist and open-source software communities, we may continue to grow in diversity and potential.