The Urbane Ecologist

The BP Horizon oil spill did a good thing — it got a bunch of people to take pictures

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When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened (2010), I was a sophomore/second-year in college. I had recently switched from doing a degree in biochemistry to one in ecology, although I always made sure to tell people that I wouldn’t be “one of those crazy environmentalists”. The implications of what was going on didn’t really hit me at the time. Something about the scale of the accident seemed very wrong, and I knew people were being very angry about it, but I didn’t even fully get the humor of South Park’s “We’re Sorry” spoof of BP CEO’s attempt at showing concern.

Some of the implications of the oil spill trickled down to the conservative, determinedly apolitical, and most certainly completely uninterested in the environment student body to me in occasional conversation. One of my friends, who had happened to begin an internship with BP right before the spill, told me how he always made sure to hide his ID card before he left the office so people wouldn’t see who he worked for.

The following year, I went to Galveston beach, on the shores of the Gulf  of Mexico, for the first time as part of a fieldwork practice module, where we were taught how ecologists sweep nets over the sea floor to collect organisms,which would then be counted to estimate things like species abundance. I squealed when the shrimp jumped, and generally felt more comfortable with the notebook and the pen on the beach than I did walking over the rocky beach bed, being thrown off balance by the current.

The following year–my final one as an undergraduate– I took a conservation class, which finally got me thinking about how ecological principles related with people. It was a very careful course–not too much about climate change, and conservation was always something that happened only when people were not around–but what I did get out of it were (1) that environmental problems exist on a massive scale and that something needs to be done, and; (2) a thing called urban ecology exists. I was on my way to becoming a “crazy environmentalist”. Over the course of that year, many of my friends and classmates got jobs relating to the oil industry in Houston–BP, Exxon, whatever–and some went to UT Austin to study oil and gas law. I never brought up these issues with one of my very good friends at the time, who had gotten a job involving being on the rigs in the Gulf and deep sea drilling. She was–and remains–one of the nicest people I know, and I wasn’t sure whether breaking the bubble of willful ignorance would do more harm than good. She loved her work and did it well, but she was determinedly apolitical–what was the point of me pushing my crazy ideas when it would likely result in a desire to stop visiting me, rather than a eureka moment that culminated in a dramatic resignation from BP?

Nowadays, I occasionally read in the news how BP keeps attempting to refuse responsibility for the accident, or about how dolphins and turtles are dying in record numbers in the Gulf. But I learned yesterday that something I have become interested in–participatory mapping–had a big part to play in how people living in the Gulf reacted to the spill, even though I had no idea it was going on at the time.

To backtrack, participatory mapping derives, academically, from scholars of “critical cartography”, who challenge the political and ideological assumptions of how maps are made. While maps seems unambiguous and factual and in no way skewed one way or another, that is far from true! There is great power in making a map–in deciding what categories you put in of whatever you are showing, in choosing your scale, in choosing whether something even appears on a map, you essentially decide what matters or not. One only has to think of the consequences of the great imperial powers casually dividing up the continent of Africa to realize the immense consequences of what using maps can do. Participatory mapping challenges that. It brings the power of making maps to “ordinary” people, giving them the power to challenge the stories that may be told about them and where they live and to advocate for what they may need.

A decade or so ago the technology related to mapping, such as the cameras and satellites that took the images and the software that put them together, were out of the price range of most people. They cost a lot of money and the only way to really have access to them was through your university or company. Furthermore, the software was not easy to learn right away, which meant that when you left the place where you first learned it, you had no way of practicing it. But nowadays a lot of open source software exists (e.g. Quantum GIS), which means that it’s free and you can figure things out on your own, and the process of taking the pictures doesn’t require anything prohibitively expensive or difficult to find. The idea is, you attach a camera to balloon or a kite and have it take pictures, and then you overlay the pictures on maps that already exist in Google Earth, and then you can see how things change. In this way, you can get a granularity that you would not otherwise get from occasional satellite images (which is what you get whenever you go on Google Maps or Google Earth). Groups participating in and advocating participatory mapping have been growing and, as it turns out, the Galveston Oil Spill was the catalyst to getting one active group together.

Yesterday, at a talk given by Cindy Regalado from the Extreme Citizen Science research group at UCL, I learned that, while most Rice University students were living fairly obliviously to what was going on around them, people living in and around the Gulf area had joined forces and decided to map the effects the oil spill was having on the coast, in association with Public Lab, making 80 maps out of 100,000 images. They worked in groups called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Grassroots Mapping and funded themselves through a Kickstarter campaign. The software that puts together the pictures onto existing maps–MapKnitter–was developed directly as a consequence of that oil spill. Cindy took us through an exercise where we overlaid some photos on a site. It’s really easy! Assuming you have taken aerial photos, simply upload them to MapKnitter and go for it! In terms of making the balloons or kites that go up in the air, the materials are as simple as rubber bands, basic point and shoot cameras, pieces of paper, and construction tarp.

Meanwhile, the project called ReMap Lima, which is being conducted by my course instructors, Rita Lambert and Adriana Allen, uses drones in association with a Swiss NGO called Drone Adventures. Rita pointed out that one advantage drones have over other forms of mapping is that they can construct high-quality 3D images. This is extremely helpful in understanding Lima’s marginalized communities because they live on hillsides and, indeed, the only way to understand the complexities of how they live in relation to where they live is by looking at it in 3D, and not with a flat view from above. In this context, the most useful form of participatory mapping–drones and not kites or balloons–is not immediately accessible to those who can benefit from it. We see that in this project we touch upon the issues of the “digital divide”. In other words, if a university in London had not gotten in touch with a Swiss NGO to get these drones, how would the residents of the neighborhoods they are working with have been able to engage in effective participatory mapping practices?

Another issue inherent in the choice in picking drones vs balloons or kites is community engagement. On the beach in Spain last summer, I looked up from my book to find a drone buzzing around, and I recall a vague feeling of violation. Nobody had asked me if they could take pictures of me and yes, I know they weren’t taking pictures of me per se and all I was doing was reading a book, but it would have been nice to have a choice or to ask whoever was flying it what they were doing or why. With kites or balloons, on the other hand, mapping becomes a public act; “you can trace the string back to the person holding it, and you can engage with the community by allowing people to ask you what you are doing”, as Cindy says.

The feeling of violation I got on the beach in Spain is very similar to that I feel whenever I think of all the surveillance on the part of state and private forces that happens every day; as a matter of fact, the feeling is worse. While I could clearly see and identify what was watching me on the beach, I have no idea who is watching me and where at any given time anywhere else, unless I specifically look for a CCTV camera. And for that reason, I was strongly opposed to drones. But knowing that sometimes drones can be more helpful that kites or balloons does not make them all-evil; furthermore, drones are and will be used anyway, so it may be more helpful to use them as a way of challenging the forces that use them rather than not engaging with them at all.

So here we go–I never thought I’d say this, but I finally found one good thing to come out of the BP oil disaster. Hopefully, in the decades ahead, we’ll see participatory mapping becoming a means of preventing environmental disasters rather than documenting them.

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One thought on “The BP Horizon oil spill did a good thing — it got a bunch of people to take pictures

  1. Fascinating article, really informative. Thanks for sharing!

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