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Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Friday, 19 August 2011 12:50 UK

How to create your own aerial map

The Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, New York
The Gowanus canal has been pegged for a state-sponsored clean-up operation

Some websites allow us to see the world from above at the click of a mouse. But should we allow corporations such as Google to have a monopoly on our view of the planet?

A project in New Orleans is working to create an aerial view of the earth that is entirely constructed by the public.

The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Plots) was set up in the wake of the BP oil spill in 2010.

It began with a seven-strong community of scientists, designers and urban planners who got together to find a way to map the extent of the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Plots developed affordable tools that could be used by anyone to take aerial pictures of their environment and community.

Using cheap digital cameras, plastic bottles and bits of string the aerial cameras can be created for less than $200 (£120).

"The entire kit is based on low-cost, do-it-yourself construction," says Shannon Dosemagen of Plots.

We're worried about access to information
Shannon Dosemagen, Plots

Fish bone

With these tools she has created a small weather balloon and a kite that carry a camera. Once in the air the camera must be in continuous shoot mode but even that doesn't require the latest technology.

"What we do is we put the head of a q-tip [cotton bud] on the button and wrap a rubber band around," she says. In effect it is like keeping your finger on the button.

"I was on a boat the other day and I didn't have a q-tip, so I used a fish bone."

At 1,000 to 1,500 feet- about 300 to 450 metres - the camera can take great high resolution pictures that rival anything Google Maps can produce.

The team at the Gulf coast then collate these images into maps, creating a visual guide to the effect of the oil spill.

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"Over the past year we've produced 60 to 75 maps of different areas of the coast during the oil spill - so we've been printing maps on paper, and then we hand the maps out to the community," Dosemagen explains.

"Our goal is to pick particular places and do long-term monitoring over one to two years.

"We're interested in environmental impact - with really good resolution you can see bird counts, oil streaks and oil sheen coming in during the spill."

Opening up

The aim of the project is to open up this method of mapping to the wider community.

By putting an illustrated guide to camera construction on the back of these paper maps and offering tutorials for locals they are teaching people how to put their own equipment together.

Plots also asks users to share their observations and comments online to help improve the process.

"We're worried about access to information, especially with the oil spill, it was so closed off," says Ms Dosemagen.

An infrared map
Infrared images can determine plant health

"There isn't any good information and because of the ongoing litigation who knows how long it will be before images are available to the public."

"So this is a way for people to collect and make public images."

Plots are currently testing a camera they have customised to take infrared images. The camera can look at photosynthesis in plants from the air to see how healthy they are.

The project has just been awarded $500,000 (£300,000) by the Knight foundation -a US organisation that promotes innovative citizen journalism - and is set to expand over the next three years.

The simple technology has been rolled out in New York where locals are monitoring biodiversity in Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal and similar projects are underway in California and Texas.

But some of the most interesting uses of the aerial camera have come from those outside the organisation from individuals who have come across the project online.

In Chile, balloon-mounted iPhones are being used to monitor and live-stream protest marches, alerting protesters to progress and dangers.

Following from this, the innovative idea spread to Jerusalem in July this year, where it was used by protesters to monitor a march for Palestinian Independence.

With all of its content freely available online, the movement hopes to inspire countless more people to start taking an active interest in their environment.

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