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By Molly Gordon

Published May 2015 Grassroots Mapping Forum #7. Order online.

When I arrived at Public Lab’s kick-off “Mapping Blitz” for the Urban Waters project, I did not know what to expect. I first discovered Public Lab while researching opportunities to learn about practical applications of GIS and remote sensing as I struggled to teach the practice to myself without a project at hand. I had never considered the possibility of collecting my own data to create maps of the rapidly transforming landscape that surrounds me within the city of New Orleans, especially data that had such a particular urgency.

We assembled at the Keller Library and split into teams that were diverse not just in our levels of experience with the Public Lab tools, but in the backgrounds that had brought us there. My team used the balloon mapping kit to take images of a recently planted wetland project at the Bayou Bienvenue restoration site from our position at the Eastbank Wastewater Treatment Plant. We followed the lessons learned by Public Labbers before us of how to best balance our cameras in the carved out plastic bottle provided in our kit, filled our balloon, and sent our unmanned vessel soaring into the sky above us. As we waited for the balloon to reach its apex and return back down we were afforded the time to enjoy the peaceful scene of the wetland around us as well as to connect with each other as members of a newly formed community.

Back at the library, we uploaded our images onto Public Lab’s Mapknitter site to create a record of the wetland’s current health. When I saw the surreal blue and pink images that the near-infrared camera we used had produced—the water treatment plant transformed into what looked like a giant turntable from such a great height, surrounded by the contours of the bayou and the vibrancy of the life that had been planted there—I was awestruck. Each team set to using the raw data of their respective imagery to create a map that documented their point in time experiences of a restoration site in flux. Some struggled, technical difficulties ensued, but we were able to create some viable maps and learn from the frustrations of the day. Before we dispersed, we mounted a camera on one of the balloons one last time to document ourselves, a mini citizen scientist community at work.