Grassroots Mapping is a series of participatory mapping projects involving communities in cartographic dispute. 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.

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Goldsmiths University, Design & Environment first session

October 19th, 2011 by Cesar Harada

20:15, 2011 10 11 London, UK.

Original post here :

Today, we went out mapping, or more precisely doing aerial photography, flying a digital camera under a nice big green balloon from the green of Goldsmiths University  London. The MA is Design at Goldsmiths has an option called “Design & Environment” supervised by Prof Jennifer Gabrys. It is a course that initiates students to alternatives design and environmental methods and pratices. This hands-on experiment was lead by Cesar Harada acting both as Goldsmiths tutor and Public Laboratory instructor. The mappers -who are also the authors of this post- were Anuja Uttamrao Borker, Inessa Demidova, Shan-Yu Hsu, Dk Hajah Hazwani Pg Dato Haji Jaberudin, Federica Sterpos, Chian-Yun Yang, Yifan Zhang, Elvira Grob (group picture).

The kit

<Hazwani> The purpose was to capture many images of Goldsmiths open-field area and its surrounding. In order to have these continuous green images, we created a flying balloon digital camera. We did not need complex materials to make it.

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

First of all we cut our 3l Fanta plastic bottle into half in order to place the digital camera inside the bottle top, attached with orange string onto our camera and through the bottle neck. Instead of the rest of the bottle ends up in the bin, we used it to create wings so that it becomes stable once it is up in the sky. We cut it into strips and fold them so that it became straight and folded as a rotor blades. In order to ensure the strings would not slip away, we had to make sure the cotton string was tightly taped down onto our camera.

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

  • 2. Load the balloon

Once we got everything prepared in the studio, all of us and our tutor then rushed our way behind Lockwood Building to inflate our 1 metre balloon slowly with helium. While filling the balloon, Shanyu, Fedrica and Elvira helped our tutor to hold the huge balloon so that it would not touched the ground and the things around. The other four of us were taking pictures and making notes of the process.

  • 3. Set your camera

Before we launched our balloon, we had to make sure that we set our camera on continuous mode. Then we added a bit of card paper to hold down the camera trigger and used few rubber bands to hold the paper in place. Afterwards we put on the Fanta cap once the camera was securely in place. Make sure you test bounce your camera beforehand so that it would not fall out.

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

  • 4. Finally Up! Up! – Let the balloon fly!

Roughly about 12pm at Goldsmith open field, we let our balloon rise up into the sky as quick as we can so that the wind would not prevent us from letting it rise and we take turns to wind the strings carefully. We also had to make sure that we wear protective gloves beforehand, in order to protect our hand form getting string burns and ensure that we do not let the string tangled up. We flew for almost an hour and a half mapping the green field – and the materials to make were just simple! </Hazwani>

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

The weather conditions

<ChianYun> It was a cloudy day, not perfect for taking pictures. The wind was generally from the west, sometimes changed its direction. It blew strongly. Once we passed building high, the wind became too strong and limited the rising of the flying balloon, made it difficult to control the balance. At least, it didn’t rain. </ChianYun>

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

The Flight

<Shanyu Hsu> The big balloon gradually flew into the sky. Because of strong wind, the balloon moved horizontally rather than vertically. In order to avoid it from hitting the main building, we tried to pull back the line connected with the balloon for a while and then released it again, such as playing kites, for a couple of times. Luckily, the balloon flew higher and higher. The flight route of our balloon was determined by the strength and direction of wind.</Shanyu Hsu>

The Crash

<Federica> The wind brought the balloon close to the trees, we could not control the balloon or change its course. The balloon exploded and crashed into a tree. Our tutor Cesar Harada climbed up to the roof to go and check the camera. Everybody was worried the camera would be broken… and if the experiment would be failed… The tutor finally found the camera with the rest of the material in neighbours garden.</Federica>

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.
Pictures Cesar took after he found his camera following the crash, we are so emotional on them!

Final Outcome

<Inessa> When we finally got to our classroom and saw photos it turned out that the camera switched off shortly after the start of ballooning, probably the rubber band slipped off the button. As a result we have got only a few pictures and most of them were quite blurry. </Inessa>

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

<Anuja> So, in spite of the bad weather conditions, we got a few good pictures. Most importantly, we learnt a useful technique in photography and mapping. Hopefully, we will have better luck with the weather next time and it will be bright, sunny and non-windy. But overall it was a fun, educative and interesting experience.

Goldsmiths University of London, Design & Environment First Aerial Mapping Session.

The “broken rig”

Next steps

The next step would be to go map again and stitch the photograps to form a single map of the entire area.</Anuja>

<Inessa>To do so we need to use specialized software of Adobe Photoshop. Some kind of panorama-making software might be used to automatically stitch photos and get pretty neat aerial view of area with all the details. After that this images might be used for a wide range of purposes. </Inessa>

What Mapping can be used for. Historical perspective. Contemporary use of aerial photography.

</Yifan> Mapping can be used for  field-based research but can also be used for divergent thinking in a very wide range of field.

Image found here.

Aerial mapping can be a useful tool to analyse a location from the past to present day, tracking its development over time. For Example, it can be used in urban planning (architecture, landscape and etc.), human and animal habitat study, to give people a clear indication of how a development may impact the environment.

From a historical perspective, mapping has been used in a vast diversity of fields, from scientific to artistic to critical political purposes. Not only the scope of mapping has been rapidly developed, also the technologies have progressed.

The contemporary use of aerial photography can be seen from different scales of work, such as environmental projects, film shooting and city planning. It gives an opportunity to both professional and the general public to have an intuitive understanding how themselves relate to the whole, and think out of box! </Yifan>

<Inessa> The main feature of “grass-root” mapping is that it is relatively inexpensive and allows us to create quite high-quality images with relatively small efforts, that can be used by almost everyone who need it. So, not only government and big corporations, but small organisations and even students can get all the advantages of aerial photography.</Inessa>

<Cesar> PS : We still have a lot of helium in the cylinder – for possibly 2 flights. The weather conditions were not very good today unfortunately, who is interested in doing another mapping session? Please say it in the comments 🙂

For UK reference, we ordered our equipments here :

  1. Balloon £13.27 : (this balloon is big but fragile, don’t inflate too much, it will burst after a few minutes. I recommend buying 2 and stay well under burst point)
  2. Line £25.8 from the
  3. Helium £83.91: from BOC “grey day helium”, 9.1 m3, Type of cylinder : L (it is huge, you need 2 people to move it around), £68.88 Cylinder, £15.03 Delivery, Product serial number : 101720-L
  4. CameraOlympus TG-810

Special thanks to Jane Godsal, UK-based-Balloon-artist for her precious advices ! </Cesar>

Mapping River Dog Mouth, Mobile Alabama

January 24th, 2011 by Cesar Harada

Giant map_Oyster reef restoration in Mobile Alabama, Dog river mouth_ general map.

Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabama, Gulf of Mexico

Yesterday we went aerial mapping a landscape that is just about to change radically : restoration of the oyster reef in Mobile AlabamaDog river mouth – known as Helen Wood Park beach. In two hours from now (2011 January 22 6AM), hundreds of volunteers will come to install a massive oyster reef here. From 8AM today “Volunteers will be deploying approximately 23,000 bags of oyster shells to create new reefs and habitat at the mouth of Dog River” – see them in action here .

Prof Dawn McKinney & Prof Leo Dento Mapping

Prof Dawn McKinney & Prof Leo Danton & a red balloon
Aerial mapping Prof. Dawn McKinneyProf. Leo Denton of the University of Mobile South Alabama. Thanks to Shannon Dosemagen for organizing the trip.

oyster bags from....

concrete reef

reef at work :)

Oyster bag
These are the different reefs and bags of oyster they are installing. 5 non-profit organizations are working together to accomplish this massive landscaping project.

We took about 5000 aerial pictures that I turned into 3 very large resolution maps to make one huge map (at the top of the post):

7000x7000_Oyster reef restoration in Mobile Alabama, Dog river mouth_ south piece.

7000x7000_Oyster reef restoration in Mobile Alabama, Dog river mouth_ center piece.

7000x7000_Oyster reef restoration in Mobile Alabama, Dog river mouth_ north piece.

Download these full resolution maps to your computer as .zip file (27mb). If you want to learn how to make one of these map, check this post.

clay sample

This time, in addition of aerial photography, I also took ground samples (~250x microscopy), sand, sediment, organic material taken at regular interval. The idea is : if we are able to say what is on the ground – sometimes we may find oil spilled still – we can qualify and quantify what we see on the aerial pictures. We will come back in a few weeks to map again and see the effects of installing an artificial oyster reef here : “before and after” 🙂

sample -1, 20110121 Anne Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 1, 20110121 Anne Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 2, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 3, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 3b, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 3b, 20110121 Anne Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 4, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 5, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 6, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 8, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 10, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 11, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 12, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 14, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabamasample 15, 20110121 Helen Wood Park, Mobile, Alabama

Original blog post :
date : 20110121@15:41, low-tide.
Location : 30.57562, -88.07847
Mapping for Grassroots MappingLA Bucket Brigade.
Photos : Prof. Leo Denton and Prof. Dawn McKinney
Stitching : Cesar Harada
Left at 10:45 – return 20:30
Milleage : start 761963 – end 764803

Western Carolina University students map campus

December 12th, 2010 by Rachel Phipps


A group of students attending Western Carolina University, under the guidance of Adam Griffith, took on the project of mapping the campus using aerial photography in the fall of 2010. The project was initiated because there was concern about the Google Earth images that covered the campus and the surrounding Cullowhee area. Satellites for Google Earth images only pass by every couple weeks and our campus is experiencing lots of change through construction of new buildings and new facilities that Google Earth does not reflect. Also, the images are of extremely poor quality, and unless you are familiar with the campus it is difficult to discern cars and some buildings and small structures.. This is where we come in: our images taken only 1000 feet in the air are of much better quality and clarity than those in Google Earth, and when we complete the project we would love for Google to insert our images into their maps.

WCU students pull in a balloonWCU material


The photographs were taken by suspending a camera inside the top of a 2 liter soda bottle and attaching this setup to a 250 gram balloon which was on 1000 feet of string (see materials picture d). We also used the same soda bottle-camera rigging attached to a kite to test which produced better photos (balloon). The balloon was pulled by hand by students on the ground and was navigated around campus, making sure to steer clear of tall buildings, trees, and other high objects that could snag the string. The camera was 14 megapixels and was set on continuous mode so it would take about a picture per second while up in the air. After several flights, we discovered what conditions were most suitable to our endeavor. The best photos were taken when the sun was out with no clouds in the sky. Lights winds were fine, but heavier winds caused the balloon to be jerked around, which would not allow the camera to focus. Advice for other mappers would be that no matter what equipment you use to take your aerial photos, make sure it is sturdy enough to withstand a fall! We experienced a malfunction where the balloon burst while we were pulling it in, and the camera struck pavement roughly. Luckily it survived with little to no damage.

WCU map


When first reviewing the outline of the project, stitching the photos together to form the map seemed like a simple enough task. We found out otherwise. The photos chosen had to be almost completely straight down and in focus on the area being photographed in order for them to be properly stitched together to fit Google Earth. Because the camera was in so much motion while in the air, there were very few pictures that turned out to be completely straight down. Due to this fact, we had to warp several photos when they were stitched and manually force them to mirror Google Earth. Stitching these photos turned out to be the most difficult and time consuming task for the whole project. However, our end product was such an improvement over Google Earth that the effort was worth it. Our photos had about 7cm resolution or 7 cm per pixel, which is a vast difference from Google Earth.