The flood of oil rushing from the Deepwater Horizon spill has, by all accounts, turned the Gulf of Mexico into an environmental disaster area, with miles of ocean and shoreline rendered uninhabitable. But when it comes time to quantify that damage—to actually show what BP's burst pipeline has done to Gulf and its surroundings—a handful of folks are worried that a lack of comprehensive visual evidence my stop landowners and others is the Gulf from receiving the kind of compensation they deserve. So for the past month or so, Jeffrey Warren, a fellow at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media, and his team at Grassroots Mapping have been working with local volunteers and others to use DIY materials to help photograph the destruction the spill has caused.
Now, Portland-based designer and aeronautical artist Mathew Lippincott will help the Grassroots Mapping project spread the power of pictures to even more people, in hopes that democratizing the project's tools even further will help create the clearest picture of the oil's impact to date.

Here's how it works: Grassroots Mapping uses regular digital cameras attached to re-purposed weather balloons to capture, in intricate detail, what effect the Deepwater Horizon spill is having on the Gulf's ecosystem. The balloons are attached to kites to keep them relatively low in the sky—around 2,000 feet or so—then sent to sea on boats to take photos of as much shoreline as possible. Then, back in MIT's labs, the photos are digitally fused together to create, in essence, the cartography of a disaster.

And at the moment, Warren and the Grassroots Mapping volunteers in the Gulf are the only groups mapping the spill this way. Government projects, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's own environmental mapping, simply superimpose drawings of the oil spill over satellite images from Google Maps - nothing more.

At the end of the day, Lippincott says, those aren't going to be enough to serve the folks whose livelihoods and environments have been damaged by the spill.

“None of them are high-resolution,” he says. “You can't actually make out the ecosystem. And what's actually happening on the ground is massive damage to the ecosystems, and massive damage to the wetlands.”

Using the digital, high-resolution kite-and-balloon images, the world will have a clear, visual record of what the real impact of the spill has been, both in the water and along the coast.

But the materials aren't cheap. A typical weather balloon costs somewhere between $30 and $50. Plus, Warren says those balloons have been popping too easily, so the group has been turning to more durable polyurethane balloons, which run somewhere in the neighborhood of $180. That's a lot to ask citizen volunteers to pay. If the project is really going to accomplish what Warren hopes—to map every part of the gulf impacted by the spill—the materials to make the cameras fly have to be more affordable.

“So yes, we're really interested in ways to more cheaply make the materials,” Warren says. “The key is simplicity and cheapness...otherwise these tools aren't sustainable for the communities [that] need them.”

That's where Lippincott comes in. Lippincott has been designing and testing ways to make the balloons out of materials that are far cheaper and, he hopes, far more efficient. This Saturday, he'll put on a public workshop that will test two different kinds of plastic—one similar to what trash bags are made of, another made of the plastic you put around your house when you paint your ceilings—to see how well either material can contain helium's tiny molecules. Both will be held together by some combination of tape and heat - likely from a soldering iron.

Grassroots Mapping Balloon Map

Plus, Lippincott will tests ways to fuel the balloons with solar panels - a hyper-inexpensive way to make the cameras fly without the need to ship or refill bulky and often expensive helium tanks in the field.

The event, Lippincott hopes, will be a kind of workshop-within-a-workshop. On the surface, there will be two groups of people: One will be constructing balloons from their raw materials - the plastic-and-tape system that Lippincott designed. The second will be heat-sealing another batch of balloons with a soldering iron. Then, the groups will test both designs to see which, if either, hold up better to the kind of stresses they'll experience in the gulf. The ones that hold up will then be shipped down to the Gulf so the folks from Grassroots Mapping can put them in the sky.

But the workshop will also be a test of the workshop process itself. Which balloon building process goes fastest? What's easier for everyday people to do? And how should the whole thing be organized so it runs as smoothly and logically as possible?

“The goal,” Lippincott says, “is to get people to build these balloons. “The workshop will be getting the package down easily enough, and cheap enough, so it can spread virally. That's really the goal.”

GO: Lippincott's balloon-building workshop for the Grassroots Mapping project takes place Saturday, June 26 at Gallery Homeland, 2505 SE 11th #136. It is scheduled to begin at 11 am.

Images of Grassroots Mapping Gulf Coast oil spill mapping project courtesy of Jeffery Warren.
Grassroots Mapping poster