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Lessons from mapping Bourj Al Shamali refugee camp in Lebanon

by clauds | almost 4 years ago | 11 | 12

##Background on the project

Bourj Al Shamali is located 3 km east of Tyre in south Lebanon and has approximately 22,000 registered Palestinian refugees. Obtaining a map of the camp seems like an impossible task, and as it is a small compact space, the current aerial images (on google) are not of high enough resolution to distinguish the narrow streets and individual buildings.

For this reason with Al Houla Association in the camp, we launched a kite and balloon mapping initiative in May 2015. The aim of this aerial map was to have a tool that would help the local committee in the camp to do two things: (i) to launch an urban agriculture pilot project; and (ii) to create a green space in the camp.

Our Experience and Lessons Learned

As Bourj Al Shamali is such a compact space, we took images at various altitudes to ensure we had high quality images of rooftops, but also good overviews of the camp. The aim was to get close to the ground photos for small, precise images and higher up images with greater range but lower resolution to help us piece together the map. On average we took photos at 80-100 and then at 200-250 meters altitude. We measured this by marking our line with the different altitudes we needed.

Our main equipment issue was acquiring helium in Lebanon. Helium is expensive, although it was relatively easily available. In addition, logistical challenges stemmed from the physical aspects of the camp. In an ideal setting, one can cover large areas if you are able to walk around with the balloon and there are no obstacles. In Bourj Al Shamali, however, streets are narrow and therefore difficult to maneuverer in with the balloon.

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There is also a maze of electricity cables above all streets and around the buildings.

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The camp is on a hill and with the sea close by, the area is also often windy, with the wind going inland. At some of the most strategic locations this meant that the wind worked against us, making it difficult to steer the balloon where we wanted to.

We compensated for our inability to walk around by launching our balloon from many different locations. In total we mapped from 16 different positions within the camp, covering the whole area.

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To solve our problems we also had a lot of community support: the wind meant that twice the kite broke and we needed help from a seamstress in the camp to help us fix it.

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We also received help from a local carpenter who constructed a case to protect our camera, and from the school physics teacher who helped with ideas. When the balloon was shot down, the local tyre shop helped to patch up the holes. In addition, we were also invited to roof tops and people's homes constantly, as people wanted to partake in the project.

Photos by Firas Ismail, Mustapha Dakhloul and Claudia Martinez Mansell



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    Argonne Interns at Public Lab 2015 Midwest Regional Barnraising

    by wsnutt | about 4 years ago | 0 | 3

    The Public Lab Chicago Barnraising was a great opportunity for local community members to connect with each other and with Public Lab about citizen science. This event provided us much insight about citizen science for our intern research project at Argonne National Laboratory, and we would like to share our experiences from the weekend!

    The Public Lab Barnraising 2015 event addressed environmental issues by engaging with people locally in the Midwest region, while promoting participant driven activities, projects and technologies. The event integrated different people from different backgrounds in a fun way while brainstorming new ideas, past experiences and increasing awareness of environmental issues.

    We are a team of summer interns at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory under Dr. Margaret MacDonell in the Environmental Science Division. We are identifying technologies people can use to better understand environmental conditions, with an emphasis on pollutants of interest to DOE programs. This includes mobile sensors for air and water quality, which can be affected by energy-related activities and wastes (such as power plant operations and petcoke).

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is collaborating with DOE/Argonne for this project, with particular interest in technologies the public can use to learn about the environment in their neighborhoods. The Public Lab Barnraising 2015 event provided an exciting opportunity for us to participate in hands-on research as citizen scientists.

    Dr. Amber Wise of Chicago State University, a DOE visiting faculty appointee in the Environmental Sciences Division at Argonne this summer, coordinated our involvement in the Public Lab event.

    Meeting other citizen scientists at Public Lab Barnraising 2015

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    Citizen scientists from the Midwest gather in Chicago, IL, for Public Lab Barnraising 2015.
    Top: Barnraising participants introduce themselves. Bottom: Participants create the day’s schedule based on everyone’s interests and expertise.

    DIY Kite Kit

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    Citizen scientists, Argonne National Laboratory research interns, construct the aerial device for kite mapping with the help of Mathew Lippincott, Public Lab. The team altered the design by turning the tail vertical to replicate the model of a helicopter. The purpose of this device is to protect the camera and provide stability. Kite mapping can be used to gain aerial images of areas not otherwise readily accessible. Photos can then be combined (or “stitched together”) to create maps with the ability to estimate size and presence of large-scale environmental phenomena. From top to bottom:: Sam Nutt; Jamie (local participant), Mathew Lippincott, and Breyinn Loftin; Nicole Virella Maldonado; Jacqueline Wilson.

    Kite Mapping

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    DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Aerial Kite Mapping Top: Aerial unit (turned aside for testing camera) constructed by Argonne research interns with the assistance of Public Lab’s Mathew Lippincott. Middle: Lippincott inserting camera into the unit (the camera is attached with a series of rubber band knots to both hold the camera and the shutter button down).
    Bottom: Kite from the DIY kit for kite mapping. (The kit comes with two kites.)

    Petcoke Piles

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    Southeast Chicago, view from the Calumet River: Petroleum coke, or petcoke, piles at the South Facility of KCBX Terminals Company. Petcoke is a byproduct of the oil refining process, and is brought to this location from refineries nearby in Whiting, IN. Local citizens are concerned about environmental exposures and possible health effects of windblown dust from these piles; they are also interested in understanding any issues related to runoff from the storage piles.

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    North Facility of KCBX Terminals Company. This site was recently ordered to remove the petcoke for not having the proper certification to store the piles here.

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    Throughput transportation boat, used to move the petcoke piles. These are boats that transport petcoke to its next destination.

    Balloon Mapping

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    Ben Sugar of CivicLab attaches a 3D-printed camera attachment apparatus to the line for balloon mapping the animal feed manufacturing plant, Agri-Fine, as Sam Nutt looks on.
    Neighbors are concerned about odors coming from the plant, and about the possibility of health effects. Like kite mapping, balloon mapping is used to gain aerial images of areas not otherwise readily accessible. Publiclab has extensive online information on how anyone can do this type of science, from altering a camera to stitching images together.

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    The team prepares the balloon for mapping the Agri-Fine facility.
    Top: Filling the balloon with helium and holding down the top so it does not fly away. Bottom: Inflated balloon attached to a weight.

    Citizen Science Aloft!

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    Inflated balloon flying with attached camera.
    A rubber band continuously depresses the shutter, ensuring constant photography.
    These are the types of images that can be obtained from aerial mapping. Hopefully someone is working on the images obtained from this day’s work and can post them in a future blog post!

    Thank you, Public Lab, for organizing this event! We had a great time!

    Shikye Bhuiyan (City College of New York) Elise Burton (Harris-Stowe State University) Lizmarie Camacho Velazquez (Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico) Breyinn Loftin (Hampton University) William (Sam) Nutt (Case Western Reserve University) Nicole Virella Maldonado (University of Puerto Rico, San Juan) Jacqueline Wilson (Tuskegee University) Dr. Amber Wise (Chicago State University)

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    Case Study: Ecological Assessment and Management using Balloon- and Kite-collected Aerial Images

    by gretchengehrke | about 4 years ago | 1 | 4

    This is Part 2 of an ongoing series of case studies by Gretchen Gehrke, Public Lab's Data Advocate, highlighting different stories of environmental data's use in the Public Lab community. You can find the entire series here.

    Ecological assessments and management strategies often require a combination of landscape-scale visualization and individual plant-specific documentation. Low-altitude high-resolution aerial imagery can be used to collect and distribute information on both of these scales. Community members have utilized Public Lab balloon mapping kits with a red-green-blue (RGB) and near-field infrared, red, green (NRG) filters to plan and monitor ecosystem services such as invasive species eradication and wetlands restoration projects.

    Strong winds and salt water intrusion during Hurricane Katrina destroyed bottomland hardwoods in southern Louisiana in 2005. On the 86-acre Audubon Louisiana Nature Center property (above), nearly 90% of the bottomlands were uprooted and rapidly repopulated by the invasive species Triadica sebifera, known as Chinese Tallow. In order to help restore the natural ecosystem, Disaster Recovery Coordinator Amy LeGaux first needed to determine the extent of tallow infiltration over many acres, and used aerial images to do so. LeGaux and colleague Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network flew kites equipped with RGB-lens camera to visualize the area. In 2015, the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center property still had 52 acres of tallow, and the Center received funding to remove 14 acres of the invasive plant. Using NRG aerial images Eustis collected using a Public Lab Kite Mapping kit, they were able to distinguish tallow from any surrounding vegetation due to its high photosynthetic activity, and LeGaux could make a detailed geographic plan for tallow removal. Using aerial images was more efficient than canvassing tree species on the ground, and facilitated strategic planning with tallow removal by maintaining a more comprehensive scale than is accessible on the ground. Aerial images have also been useful in documenting restoration progress and educating the public with compelling visual evidence about invasive species progression and eradication.

    Other invasive species management programs by city and state departments have planned to use Public Lab Balloon Mapping kits for reconnaissance to collect information about the geographic extent and severity of invasive plant establishment. A collaborative effort between University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Charlie Schweik and personnel at the Fish & Wildlife Services developed a plan to use aerial images to map water chestnuts in a series of ponds in Westfield, Massachusetts, which had previously been painstakingly canvassed by personnel in canoes. The team attempted to do Supervised Classification of the image pixels, using R, G, B, and IR bands in order to discern water chestnut plants from surrounding vegetation. Unfortunately, weather conditions, including a large wind gust leading to a dunking of one of the cameras, impaired the student team’s ability to collect four-band images over the land area of interest, so the aerial images were not actually utilized in the water chestnut management plan. However, there is potential to utilize the sophisticated techniques such as supervised classification in do-it-yourself remote sensing, which makes those techniques available to resource-limited city and regional ecological organizations. With high resolution cameras, appropriate filters, and stable flying conditions, it may be possible to do spectral analyses, which could be useful for a variety of applications including species identification and temperature differentiations. An advantage of being tethered to the mapping unit, either kite or balloon, collecting images throughout the ascent, are the multiple scales and resolutions of emergent photographs, which then can be useful for a variety of applications.

    Aerial imagery is useful in planning and monitoring ecosystem restoration projects. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has developed and implemented wetlands restoration programs throughout the Lake Pontchartrain watershed, including a marsh-creation project in Bayou St John spearheaded by wetland biologist Andy Baker. Andy and colleague Scott Eustis have used Public Lab kite mapping kits to collect a long-term time series of RGB aerial images along Bayou St John, first to determine the appropriate scale of restoration, and then to observe plant growth and channel migration, and highlight potential problems. Aerial images documented the migration of excess dredged material into the new marsh area, and the effectiveness of corrective measures. The time-series of aerial images has demonstrated differential growth patterns along the two shores of the bayou, which has implications for future restoration programs.

    For ecological assessment and monitoring, temporal and spatial resolution are important. Various applications will require different degrees of data resolution, both on a per-pixel basis and over time, and it is important to incorporate those data needs into the mapping campaigns. If resources are available, it may be beneficial to use high-resolution cameras with a variety of filters to monitor aspects such as sub-aqueous vegetation with aerial photographs, or adapt the mapping kit with a remote trigger would allow the user to select when to capture a photograph with the balloon or kite flying. With a basic Public Lab kit focused on ease of use, individuals and communities can choose to make modifications to improve resolution in time and space that would enhance the utility of do-it-yourself aerial mapping for ecosystem management.

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    Audubon Louisiana Nature Center Image by stevie

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    Water Chestnut (invasive plant), Westfield, MA Image by atvolpini

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    Infragram of Bayou St John, Louisiana Image by eustatic

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    Case Study: Using Aerial Imagery to Pressure Industrial Polluters into Stormwater Compliance

    by gretchengehrke | about 4 years ago | 8 | 2

    This is Part 1 of an ongoing series of case studies by Gretchen Gerhrke, Public Lab's Data Advocate, highlighting different stories of environmental data's use in the Public Lab community. You can find the entire series here.

    Above, a false-color composite image incorporating near-infrared and visible-light photographs of a section of the Gowanus Canal, by the Gowanus Low-Altitude Mapping group.

    Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York has been an industrial hub since the nineteenth century. Historically, canal frontage has been used for coal yards, ship yards, dry docks, manufactured gas plants, and a variety of other industrial activities [1]. Due to historic and ongoing industrial contamination and sewage overflows, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in March 2010 [2]. In addition to direct industrial discharges and raw sewage, stormwater runoff constitutes a significant ongoing source of contamination to Gowanus Canal, transporting metals, industrial chemicals, oils, and sediments from industrial surface yards into the Gowanus.

    Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, and is one of New York’s foremost clean water advocates. Riverkeeper’s boat captain John Lipscomb, and his assistant Neale Gulley, routinely patrol the Gowanus Canal to document environmental conditions and spot polluters, and Riverkeeper also maintains a hotline and website for R the public to report pollution [3]. When Riverkeeper identifies pollution problems in New York City waters, they often work with Super Law Group, LLC, an environmental law firm with deep expertise in the Clean Water Act that specializes in representing individual citizens and non-profit groups [4].

    In 2012, following boat patrols and public complaints about stormwater pollution in the Gowanus Canal, a team of researchers and lawyers from Riverkeeper and Super Law Group launched a deeper investigation of local sources of stormwater pollution. The team used a combination of Google Maps and the New York City Digital Tax Map to obtain basic information about industrial companies along the canal, but they needed higher resolution images to provide information about actual operations.

    A DIY near-infrared map of a section of the Gowanus Canal from July 31, 2011. View on MapKnitter

    During an internet search, one member of the team, Edan Rotenberg of Super Law Group, was intrigued to discover infrared images of the Gowanus Canal, captured using a balloon-rigged infrared camera, posted on the Public Lab website [5]. Edan contacted Public Lab’s Director of Community Development, Liz Barry, who connected Edan with Eymund Diegel. Eymund is a lead community researcher on the Gowanus Canal, working with Proteus Gowanus and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and serves on the Board of Directors of Public Lab. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy and Public Lab collaborate on a project called Gowanus Low Altitude Mapping (GLAM) [6]. Through GLAM, Eymund and other community members have taken hundreds of high-resolution aerial photographs using balloon and kite cameras. Eymund shared these photographs with Edan.

    Riverkeeper and Super Law Group sorted the GLAM aerial photographs, looking for clear photographs of industrial plots on the shoreline. In the low-altitude shoreline photographs, the team looked for evidence of faulty equipment or practices that broke permit regulations, such as broken fences that allowed debris to enter the canal, unauthorized open pits, and direct runoff from impermeable paved surfaces into the canal. In a few instances, Riverkeeper and Super Law Group approached companies that were implicated in the GLAM photographs and the companies responded by voluntarily cleaning up their operations without a lawsuit being filed. In another instance, Edan actually showed a company the images captured by GLAM, which pressured the company into compliance. In other cases, Riverkeeper and Super Law Group filed suit against the polluters, and used Public Lab community-collected aerial images to demonstrate that there was clear proof of pollution, which helped Riverkeeper reach settlements with those polluters that terminated the lawsuits quickly and brought those companies into prompt compliance with pollution laws.

    While the Public Lab images were useful to this enforcement effort, there are additional features and collection strategies that would improve the utility of Public Lab aerial images for people interested in initiating similar efforts. A key feature to develop or include would be the automatic logging of date, time, location, and photographer in order to create an automatic start to the chain of custody for the image. The auto-logged location also would enable a person to utilize Public Lab images in other geospatial platforms, such as three-dimensional Geographic Information System (GIS) programs. Possibly the most noteworthy way to improve the utility of Public Lab images, based on Super Law Group’s experience, is to take more frequent images, creating a time series over the course of days, weeks, and months. Time series images are useful for legal proceedings to demonstrate consistent or repeated behaviors, or to demonstrate the progression of a problem. Thermal imagery is also extremely useful for detecting errant water inflows into a larger waterbody, including both stormwater runoff and groundwater discharges from seeps or pipes. These inflows can be difficult to discern with standard photography but often are a different temperature from the receiving water and therefore are distinguishable in thermal images. Near-infrared images can also be useful in identifying different source waters by imaging different algal communities. It was the GLAM infrared imagery that first attracted Edan to Public Lab resources, and he had hoped there would be a more extensive repository of infrared (and thermal) images. Edan postulates that environmental advocates and researchers nationwide would benefit tremendously from easier access to time-series visual and thermal aerial imagery.

    Aerial photographs provide stakeholders and legislative decision-makers with compelling visual evidence. Aerial images can demonstrate the wide range of potential contamination pathways into a waterbody, and also remind people of the connectivity of the watershed. Thus, low-altitude high-resolution aerial images may be useful in promoting better environmental regulations and outcomes.

    Works Cited:

    1. http://www.epa.gov/region2/superfund/npl/gowanus/pdf/gc_publicmeeting022311.pdf
    2. http://www.epa.gov/region02/superfund/npl/gowanus/
    3. 1-800-21-RIVER ext 231; http://www.riverkeeper.org/get-involved/violations/
    4. http://www.superlawgroup.com/home
    5. https://mapknitter.org/maps/2011-7-31-brooklyn-gowanus-ir
    6. http://publiclab.org/wiki/eymund-diegel-finds-the-fun-in-super-fund

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    "Ecohackers: These kids track pollution with balloons and kites"

    by stevie | about 4 years ago | 0 | 1

    Check out this column by Chris Berdik in The Hechinger Report

    Travis Haas, a New Orleans high school science teacher, says that ever since Hurricane Katrina, his students have endured so many lectures and lessons on the importance and vulnerability of Louisiana’s wetlands that many develop “wetlands fatigue” — rolling their eyes and tuning out faster than you can say “bayou.”

    Luckily, wetlands fatigue is nothing a little DIY civic science can’t cure. This past academic year, Haas and his students at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, an arts-focused high school, worked with the nonprofit Public Lab to monitor the health of urban wetlands. The students also piloted a new hands-on coastal wetlands curriculum, which Public Lab created alongside its core mission — developing low-cost environmental sensors, aerial photography rigs and free, open-source mapping software to give everyone the scientific tools to be environmental stewards.

    “These activities got the kids talking about wetlands again, and talking about them in a deeper way than they ever had before,” said Haas, who also heard from parents that kids had come home eager to discuss Louisiana’s rapid wetland loss — about 75 square kilometers a year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

    Last fall, NOCCA students tromped out to polluted wetlands in New Orleans’ parks and along Lake Pontchartrain. In low-lying, easily flooded New Orleans, the loss of wetlands from development and pollution means more energy and money spent pumping away the storm water that healthy wetlands would have absorbed. The kids were led by Public Lab’s outreach manager Stevie Lewis, who regularly works with students to map these wetlands from the air, a project backed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

    The students’ equipment consisted of a point-and-shoot camera fixed inside a clear plastic soda bottle and rigged up for continuous shooting while hoisted high over the park by a giant, red helium balloon.

    While NOCCA’s artistic students enjoyed lofting the giant red balloon, they really loved using MapKnitter, Public Lab’s open-source software, to stitch together all those images into maps that could be compared to other maps made over time. “They nailed it,” Haas said. “They are fascinated by film and images. They think in that way.”

    The mapping excursions aren’t just field trips. Public Lab’s small staff has a lot of ground to cover. So they count on volunteers, both adults and students, to be true collaborators who make accurate maps that track the wetlands’ health. Two weeks ago, Lewis led another group of high-school students from the city’s lower ninth ward — one of the areas hardest hit by the Katrina flooding — who are fulfilling their schools’ public-service requirements with an environmental nonprofit called Groundwork New Orleans.

    “If those students hadn’t been there to help me, I would have had a hard time,” said Lewis. “Public Lab is about collaborative knowledge-building. So students learn, and we learn from working with them. Maybe they figure out a better way to set up the camera or put together the soda-bottle rig. “We want to get people thinking openly and creatively about how to solve problems,” she added. “And that’s what students do best.”

    In the spring of 2010, as British Petroleum’s disabled Deepwater Horizon drilling platform gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the company convinced federal authorities to make the spill a no-fly zone, which meant no one could see the extent of the slick. In response, a group called Grassroots Mapping teamed up with environmental activists to fly camera-toting balloons and kites over the spill and make maps of the devastation, which were picked up widely by mainstream media.

    Later that year, the activists formed Public Lab to spread the gospel of DIY environmental science, via online illustrated tutorials, how-to videos and blog reports from citizen scientists around the world. There are now fifteen Public Lab chapters and a global online community.

    “We didn’t start off focused on formal education,” said Shannon Dosemagen, Public Lab’s executive director. “But informal education, through peer-to-peer learning, training and field work, is very much embedded in the work we do.”

    Indeed, plenty of educators have joined Public Lab’s online community, especially since 2011, when Public Lab started selling inexpensive kits and spare parts for balloon and kite mapping, infrared imaging equipment to monitor plant health and basic spectrometers to test water for pollutants. Teachers and staff at after-school programs and student “maker spaces” buy Public Lab kits in bulk, either for science labs or student participation in environmental restoration efforts, including the Los Angeles River and the Passaic River in New Jersey.

    “Putting together a tool helps you understand how it works, how data is collected and analyzed, and how you might be able to adapt it for your particular needs,” said Matthew Lippincott, Public Lab’s production director, based in Portland, Oregon. “It demystifies the scientific process so people can start taking control of environmental problems.”

    In fact, Lippincott’s tinkering indirectly led to the curriculum Public Lab piloted with Haas’s students this past spring. The short version of the story is that Lippincott wanted to modify a small camera made for a bare-bones computer called a Raspberry Pi so it could take infrared photos. Thriving plants with healthy amounts of chlorophyll reflect back more near infrared light, which digital cameras can detect but the human eye can’t. Most cameras have a built-in filter that blocks infrared, and that’s the gizmo Lippincott had to remove.

    “It was a pain in the butt,” he said. “I posted a Youtube tutorial where I took the camera apart under a microscope with a scalpel.” That tutorial was so popular that the Raspberry Pi’s makers decided to change their camera so it could be more easily modified for infrared. As a thank you to Lippincott, they asked what Public Lab initiative they could support through their foundation. The answer was easy. For years, educators who used Public Lab’s tools and tutorials had clamored for lesson plans to go with them.

    So, backed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Lippincott and Amanda Fisher, a curriculum developer for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, created four hands-on lesson plans about coastal wetlands, which they posted online and are now tweaking to meet Louisiana’s education standards. Students make clay models of wetlands and observe the impacts from simulated canal cutting, dredging, and subsidence from oil drilling operations. They also grow bean sprouts, coat some of them with oil, then modify a digital camera so they can take infrared images to compare stressed and healthy plants. Haas says asking students to remove the infrared filter from a camera is just as important as teaching them about wetlands or plant health.

    “A real strength of the curriculum is the DIY part,” he said. “Instead of seeing science as something that’s canned and error-free. It gives students a task that requires real strategy and problem solving skills. Creativity is a part of science that’s not often seen in secondary classrooms, but it’s a very important part of the process.”

    This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

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    "Dust in the Wind: How Data Visualization Can Help the Environment"

    by stevie | about 4 years ago | 1 | 2

    Image above: DustDuino can help individuals with limited resources monitor PM10 and PM2.5 concentrations, indoors or outdoors.

    Check out this article below by Willie Shubert (@willie) published in Scientific American! Willie and some of the people working on projects mentioned in this article were recently on OpenHour. Check it out if you missed it. It's the July 6th one on "Open Air Projects."

    Dust in the Wind: How Data Visualization Can Help the Environment By Willie Shubert | July 15, 2015 |

    The lidar instrument aboard the CALIPSO satellite sends out pulses of light that bounce off particles in the atmosphere and back to the satellite. It distinguishes dust from other particles based on optical properties.

    Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio A recent study using NASA’s CALIPSO satellite described how wind and weather carry millions of tons of dust from the Sahara desert to the Amazon basin each year – bringing much-needed fertilizers like phosphorus to the Amazon’s depleted soils.

    To bring this story to life, NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization team produced a video showing the path of the Saharan dust, which has been viewed half a million times. This story is notable because it relies on satellite technology and data to show how one ecosystem’s health is deeply interconnected with another ecosystem on the other side of the world.

    Stunning data visualization like this one can go a long way to helping communicate scientific wonders to the wider world. But even more important than the technology driving the collection and analysis of this data is how the team presented its findings to the public – as a story. NASA’s CALIPSO data offers a model of how scientists, technologists and journalists can come together and make use of data to help us respond to this a slow-motion crisis like air pollution.

    Being able to see the dust blowing in the wind has broad implications. Today, one in eight people in the world dies from exposure to air pollution, which includes dust. This stunning fact, issued by the World Health Organization last March, adds up to 7 million premature deaths per year. Air pollution is now the single largest environmental risk in the world, and it occurs both indoors and outdoors.

    The WHO report, which more than doubles previous estimates, is based on improved exposure measurements including data collected from satellites, sensors and weather and air flow information. The information has been cross-tabulated with demographic information to reveal, for example, that if you are a low- to middle-income person living in China, your chances of dying an air pollution-related death skyrockets.

    These shocking statistics are hardly news for people living in highly polluted areas, though in many of the most severely affected regions, governments are not eager to confirm the obvious. The availability of global scale particulate matter (dust) monitoring could change this dynamic in a way that we all can see.

    In addition to the volume of satellite data generated by NASA, sensor technology that helps create personal pollution monitors is increasingly affordable and accessible. Projects like the Air Quality Egg, Speck and the DustDuino (with which I collaborate) are working to put tools to collect data from the ground in as many hands as possible. These low-cost devices are creating opportunities for citizen science to fill coverage gaps and testing this potential is a key part of our upcoming installation of DustDuino units in Sao Paulo, Brazil later this summer. Satellite data tend to paint in broad global strokes, but it’s often local details that inform and motivate decisions.

    Satellites give us a global perspective. The official monitoring infrastructure, overseen by large institutions and governments, can measure ambient air at a very high resolution and modeling exposure over a large area. But they don’t see everything. The nascent field of sensor journalism helps citizen scientists and journalists fill in the gaps in monitoring networks, identifying human exposures and hot spots that are invisible to official infrastructure.

    A DustDuino sensor installed in São Paulo, Brazil (Photo courtesy of Willie Shubert) As program officer of the Earth Journalism Network, I help give training and support to teams of data scientists, developers and environmental journalists around the world to incorporate this flood of new information and boost local environmental coverage. We have taken this approach because the skills that we need to communicate about slow-motion crises like air pollution and climate change require a combination of experts who can make sense of data and journalists who can prioritize and contextualize it for their readers.

    Leveraging technologies, skills and expertise from satellites, sensors and communities alike, journalists, scientists and technologists need to work together to translate data into the knowledge needed to address environmental crises.

    Willie Shubert is the Senior Project Coordinator for Internews' Earth Journalism Network. As a coordinator of a global network of environmental journalists, Willie helps make tools that enable people to connect with each other, find material support, and amplify their local stories to global audiences. In his previous position at National Geographic Magazine, he coordinated translation for the magazine's 32 local language partners. He holds a degree in Geography from Humboldt State University with concentrations in cartography, environmental economics, and Chinese Studies. Outside of work, he devotes his time to the development of a free school dedicated to community building through education and to collaborative mapping and audio projects. Follow on Twitter @WillieShubert

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