Drawing with Satellites: Tracing Landscapes With a Mission

Image from OpenStreetMap - Project Haiti. | Source: OpenStreetMap.

This interview with Joel Myhre is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. As part of Incendiary Traces, a series of "draw-ins" will take place in Southern California in the coming months. They will be followed here on Artbound, along with related posts on historical and contemporary topics like this one. This post was generated in conjunction with the recent draw-in at Northrup Gruman Areospace headquarters, which will be published in the upcoming weeks.

Walking, we trace the earth with our feet. In the 1960's and 70's, British artist Hamish Fulton began making poetic artworks documenting long walks. Fulton, whose work was recently featured in MOCA's Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 exhibition, has made weeks-long traverses of Spain, Japan and Iceland, among many other geographic traces. The walk is a performance in space, the body makes a mark through space and on the ground. Related to this artistic tradition, British artist Jeremy Wood has been making drawings since 2000 by recording his own walks using GPS as a "pencil".

Hamish Fulton: Alps Horizon, 1989; Montes de Toledo, 1990. Wall painting | Image source: Digital Visual Culture: Theory and Practice, published by Intellect books.
Hamish Fulton: Alps Horizon, 1989; Montes de Toledo, 1990. Wall painting | Image source: Digital Visual Culture: Theory and Practice, published by Intellect books.

In the GPS (Global Positioning System), satellites broadcast radio signals that receivers use to determine their location on the ground. A U.S. Air Force controlled system first developed by the U.S. military for locating troops in battle, GPS has been in public use for decades. The same technology used for everyday and recreational navigation and geotagging on water and land by boaters, hikers, bikers, and drivers can also be used to draw, or more specifically, to trace one's route of travel. (While one used to need a special GPS device, mobile phones with downloadable GPS apps can now serve that purpose.) It can also be used within disaster zones to map important or critical access routes and other geographic conditions. Here, Incendiary Traces considers crisis mapping as another form of visualization that can help us, as ordinary citizens, understand seemingly remote wars. In this way, it is a descendant of landscape art practices, which are historically intertwined with the development of cartography and other geographic tools for imperial, military and commercial purposes. (For some examples, see the earlier Incendiary Traces post "The Naval Gaze: (Sub)tropical Fantasies and Imperial Pacific Landscapes".)

OpenStreetMap - Project Haiti | Video: ItoWorld

A visualization of the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by the OpenStreetMap community. Within 12 hours the white flashes indicate edits to the map (generally by tracing satellite/aerial photography). Over the following days a large number of additions to the map are made with many roads (green primary, red secondary) added. Also many other features were added such as the blue glowing refugee camps that emerge. A lot of these edits were made possible by a number of satellite and aerial imagery passes in the days after the quake, that were release to the public for tracing and analysis.
Source: OpenStreetMap


When the earthquake hit Haiti on January 12th, 2010, Los Angeles-based geographer Joel Myhre, who works with the United Nation's Operational Satellite group (UNOSAT) within the Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), advocated for a new way to visualize that landscape combining eyewitness accounts and satellite imagery. Humanitarian aid workers used these crowd-sourced crisis maps to locate areas of need, identify the kind of help needed and send help. Joel and his colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) worked with Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Ushahidi, Crisis Mappers, and other organizations. Haitian citizens, community leaders and volunteers used their cell phones to text (SMS) for help. Messages like "I'm buried under rubble", "Someone here needs medical attention", and later, "We are running out of food", were collected via online software, translated from Creole, organized into categories of need and reported to aid workers. This event launched a new approach to crisis mapping and management held together by landscape imagery that is created collaboratively with citizen reporters and experts. Incendiary Traces interviewed Joel Myhre by email to learn more about this collaborative form of tracing the landscape made with new technologies.

What do you do?
I am a geographer and Principal Consultant at Nordic Geospatial Consulting in Marina del Ray. I work with a variety of U.S. local, State, and Federal clients, as well as the UN and NGOs. I am also a member and contributor to Crisis Mappers, an ad hoc group organized by Jen Ziemke and Patrick Meier. Founded in 2009, the group consists of volunteers and professionals using new technologies to map conflict zones for humanitarian aid purposes.

My most recent collaboration has been with the UN's Operational Satellite Applications Programme based in Geneva, Switzerland. Our efforts include using mobile phone technology to better protect public health and mass gatherings such as the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games, and document the ongoing desecration of Islamic heritage in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa, using Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery (0.5 meter or 1.5 foot resolution).

What is geospatial information? Is it visual?
Geospatial information is digital data which has some reference to a location on the Earth's surface, whether it be a specific point (i.e. with an XY latitude and longitude), linear feature such as a road or boundary, or a collection of lines encompassing an area (such as a parcel, precinct, or census tract.) Although geospatial information is often represented in visual forms including mapping tools (e.g. GoogleEarth), the power of these geospatial information systems (GIS) lies in the heavy lifting they do. They analyze a myriad of statistics that are instrumental in shaping public policy.

(L) GPS Trace of Hollywood Hills, (R) GPS Trace of San Gabriel |  Image source: Jerjozwik and OpenStreetMap.
(L) GPS Trace of Hollywood Hills, (R) GPS Trace of San Gabriel | Image source: Jerjozwik and OpenStreetMap.

Geospatial information is generated in part from satellite technology, but ordinary people on the ground can also contribute. For example, crisis maps can combine citizen reports (text and images) with satellite imagery. What is the role of on-the-ground community participants in providing data? What technologies are involved in obtaining the data and how is it obtained?

The UN and many other NGOs work with global citizens and Crisis Mappers to contribute important, on-the-ground visual perspectives to a broader picture of crisis areas. Policy makers use this information to make strategic and tactical decisions in relief work and longer term planning.

Information is gathered from citizens using a range of tools. They include mobile phones with integrated GPS (providing the precise location of the phone), low-cost cloud based data storage capable of handling large aerial and satellite imagery files, publicly available satellite imagery and timely, verifiable data regarding natural hazards. These resources can be combined with crowdsourced information from Twitter (a 'microblogging' site with location data), Facebook, and blogs.

For example, the downloadable UNOSAT GEO-PICTURES Android app and CyberMappr crowd-sourcing application have been used during crises in Libya, Haiti, Pakistan and Nigeria to help experts locate and identify circumstances in damaged areas. Cybermappr was first used during the spring 2011 conflict in Libya wherein the UN worked with volunteers who gathered thousands of geotagged photos of areas damaged during shelling and military operations. These photos were immediately uploaded to a server where the photos were located on a map. Volunteers also assessed their validity and accuracy. First responders then used these maps to mobilize aid.

GEO-PICTURES Android app is used for automatically sending images (photos, video) and sensor data rapidly to a server. From there selected in-situ assessments can be forwarded to other integrated servers. | Image source: GEO-PICTURES.
Citizen reporting | Image Source: UN Global Pulse.
Using the UNOSAT Cybrmappr crowdsourcing application, a photograph of dump trucks used as a blockade in Misratah is precisely located in a satellite image from 23 April 2011 (see red arrow). Satellite image copyright 2012 DigitalGlobe. | Image Source: UN Institute for Training and Research.

Who uses the maps they create?
Governments and NGOs (e.g. The Red Cross, Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief International, etc.) consume granular mapping data from volunteer cohorts with an interest in contributing to the greater good. There is also general public interest in using them. For example, the OpenStreetMap initiative and platform, free of proprietary and intellectual property constraints, is made with GPS traces contributed by ordinary citizens and can be downloaded by the general public. Traces of routes not shown on conventional maps (e.g. paths in the wilderness or uncharted ad-hoc streets and paths in conflict zones) are made available to the public through this platform.

Have the interests of crisis mappers been in conflict with governmental, NGO or corporate interests?
Clearly, a geospatially-enabled and vocal cyber citizenry can be as disruptive as the American Revolution and French call for "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" were in the 18th Century. Tools that were once the domain of erstwhile "experts" on secure networks with workstations costing tens of thousands of dollars are now freely available to the "crowd". The Crisis Mappers forum and Ushahidi free and open sourced software mapping platform were certainly needed in the aftermath of the disputed 2008 Kenyan elections as an overt counterpoint to the dominant political narrative. Similarly, a recent deployment of an Ushahidi-like elections violation map was used during the contested re-election of Vladimir Putin in 2011.

This crowdsourced election-violations map was used to monitor Russia Parliamentary Elections in December 2011. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election violations that span the following categories:
This crowdsourced election-violations map was used to monitor Russia Parliamentary Elections in December 2011. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election violations that span the following categories:

The Elections-Violation Map was launched by Golos, the country's only independent election monitoring organization andGazeta.ru, Russia's leading Internet newspaper. | Image Source: iRevolution.

Does having a home base in Marina Del Ray in Southern California influence your work?

I have always been passionate about the promise of Los Angeles and the public health, security, environmental, and other challenges which can be met by leveraging innovative geospatial technologies, most of which have been created by Californians. In Marina del Rey, I have been fortunate enough to teach and liaise with centers of excellence at UCLA, USC, the RAND Corporation, the Aerospace Corporation, and a broad swath of longstanding and start-up technology firms located throughout Southern California. What an exciting time this is for not only this particular industry, but also for Angelinos, at large, to learn, contribute, critique, and collaborate more than ever before.


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