Helium Balloons with Digital Cameras Create Grassroots Maps

    by Jeffrey Warren
    April 20, 2010


    I’m getting ready for day five of a two-week workshop for high schoolers at Beaver Country Day School in a suburb of Boston. The subject is my project, Grassroots Mapping, which helps teach people — often young people — around the world how to be activist cartographers and how to make their own maps. There’s a twist, however: Instead of just marking a Google Map, or walking around with a GPS tracker, we construct simple capsules to hold a cheap digital camera, and send the whole package up on a helium balloon or a kite. The images are then stitched, geo-referenced, and published, as in the following picture:



    This isn’t exactly your typical high school activity. My workshop at Beaver Country Day School is part of a series of studio design-style courses that make up the NuVu Studio — an experimental education project where the students get hands-on exposure to topics like alternative energy and “the future of labor.”

    It differs quite a bit from other workshops I’ve taught in places like Amman, Jordan and Lima, Peru, in that the idea of “subjective geography” seems somewhat less immediate. I didn’t have to explain to anyone in the West Bank, for example, that mapping is not a neutral act, or that it’s a social construction with a profound political meaning and agenda. But here in Walnut Hill that seems a bit distant…



    Mapping a Tea Party

    I did show the students maps I’d made in urban slums in Lima, Peru, and it’s not that they were uninterested in the iniquities of urban slums. I’m really facing the same issue as I did in Peru: Before this kind of work (or play) seems exciting and relevant, it has to come with a sense of ownership. Unless we can find a way to situate do-it-yourself mapping, it’s not going to resonate.

    In Peru, the need for maps to establish land claims was obvious. Unlike here in Boston, my collaborators there had built their homes and community brick by brick with their own hands. They’d made their own geography, so mapping it was just another step.

    I suggested to students that we go to a Tea Party rally where a protest against Sarah Palin’s keynote speech was occurring. There would be plenty of political context there, I thought. The students were excited (even at the — distant — prospect of getting arrested). But our satellite building session overflowed into the afternoon, and when the rally ended we were still in the same room, covered in styrofoam bits and duct tape. Some violent “flight tests” assured that our new camera enclosures were ready for takeoff:

    In any case, it’s still just plain fun to fly balloons, and this week the students will choose a site to map and explain their reasoning. The hope is that this two-week course will form the basis for an international map-making competition — a kind of student X Prize, which we’re beginning to call the One Satellite Per Child project. Participants will prototype a mapping rig just like we’re doing here at Beaver Country Day, collaborate with other students from around the world through a website, and win awards for lowest weight, best documentation, best application of mapping, and other goals.


    Why Grassroots Maps?

    Grassroots mapping provides an exciting context for situated learning, including subject material from history, geography, physics, politics, and even chemistry. As an example, when we were trying to lower the cost-per-flight, we used stoichiometry to find out how many aluminum soda cans we had to mix with lye to produce enough hydrogen to fill a 5-foot balloon. (Answers varied from 15 to 33.8 cans — we’ll have to try it to find out who was right.)

    This is the dream-stuff of many educators, and indeed we often have more interest from Beaver Country Day’s teachers than their play-it-cool high school seniors. I’ve been asked several times whether teachers can take the course, and perhaps that’s more important anyways, given that it may represent an opportunity to influence how education works.

    Soon we’ll start to tackle some advanced projects, like a camera-carrying remote controlled airplane, and an inflatable kite filled with helium. Stay up to date on our progress at the Grassroots Mapping blog.


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