In a recent Idea Lab post from the Center for Future Civic Media, Jeff Warren wrote about using inexpensive balloons and cheap cameras to make pseudo-satellite imagery of a given area. He had been using it to help people in poor areas establish title to their land (Google Maps satellites don’t map poor areas as fast as these areas actually grow).

But then the Gulf oil spill happened…

Phone calls and emails started coming in from suddenly out-of-work fishermen who were frustrated with British Petroleum, and also flummoxed by the lack of imagery explaining how and where the oil slick was spreading. Warren has since made multiple trips to the Gulf Coast, primarily to the Chandeleur Islands, where these same fishermen are taking him out to map the disaster. The resulting images, after being rectified and stitched together, are humbling. You can also read his recent Idea Lab account of his work there.

i-6a2d9b59c0dc37be1b73eb3fa1827543-In-progress stitch of the oil spill at Chandeleur Islands from Saturday.jpg

i-a4a322ee4b07d61a3757f864f40f0767-Oil at Chandeleur islands, as seen from a balloon.jpg

The Value of Cheap Mapping

You might ask, “What’s the point of ‘cheap’ mapping?” Warren’s work is proving to be invaluable for three reasons besides cost:

  1. It’s responsive. You don’t have to schedule a satellite flyover; you can just do it, multiple times if needed.
  2. It’s open source, if you want it to be. You don’t need a vendor’s permission to use the images as you wish.
  3. It’s high-res. And there’s the key in a fast-changing situation like the one in the Gulf: you can overlay a high-resolution balloon-mapping image on a low-res Google Map and know exactly how dramatically the situation is changing…

i-9f6fd6c7302cf124f689485bb5e2d8a5-Oil at Chandeleur islands.jpg

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones. What other applications of balloon mapping can you imagine? Share your thoughts in the comments.