Thinking Tech

NASA tracks hurricane season as volunteers map the oil spill

Posting in Government

Will the inevitable summer hurricanes help spread the oil?

Knowing that oil is still gushing up into the Gulf of Mexico makes the 4-minute video montage of the 2009 hurricane season that NASA released last week especially poignant -- we wonder how how far the oil will travel and whether the hurricanes that are inevitably coming this summer will help spread it.

Even though BP has managed to cap its broken blow-out preventer so it could gather some of the leaking oil (see CBS News' continuing live feed of the leak here), hundreds of thousands of gallons may still be rushing into the water every day. BP says it continues to work on the problem.

Meanwhile, volunteers organized by Jeffrey Warren of MIT Media Lab's Center for Future Civic Media are using kites, balloons and remote-control airplanes to hoist their own satellites -- cheap digital cameras -- and document the oil's spread themselves, in a project called Grassroots Mapping (hat-tip earth2tech).

All data will be publicly accessible once the project gets going. Warren and others tried these techniques in January with some residents of Lima, Peru, and have now joined forces with the non-profit Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which was also using volunteers to track the spill.

From the Grassroots Mapping Project (which also supplied the picture):

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. The resulting images, which are owned by the residents, are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost. In some cases these maps may be used to support residents' claims to land title. By creating open-source tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we hopes to enable a diverse set of alternative agendas and practices, and to emphasize the fundamentally narrative and subjective aspects of mapping over its use as a medium of control.

Everybody who's trying to stop the oil leak will have their hands full -- and judging from past spills, as the Washington Post details, cleaning it up will take years.

Notice in NASA and NOAA's hurricane video how the 2009 storms seemed to move from southeast to northwest, and how the air currents circle around the gulf.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure