Public Lab was inspired by the information blackout surrounding the 2010 BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite having a massive impact on residents and the environment, local communities received sparse, incomplete data that contradicted what they could see unfolding in front of them. As news of the spill’s severity spread nationally and outrage about limited access to information simmered locally, Public Lab’s would-be co-founders convened in the Gulf Coast as part of the Grassroots Mapping collaborative.
The Grassroots Mappers were a group of people seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography by using helium balloons and kites to loft their own "community satellites" made with inexpensive digital cameras. Partnering with New Orleans-based environmental justice organization Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Mappers trained over one hundred local volunteers and activists who collected over 100,000 aerial images of the coastline before, during, and after the oil spread. Then, using MapKnitter, an open source platform created by the group, residents stitched these images into high resolution maps of the disaster as it unfolded. Through a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, these high resolution maps were uploaded as a primary or historical layer to Google Earth, making them globally accessible and allowing residents to speak their truth about what was going on in the Gulf.