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 and outrage about limited access to information simmered locally, three of Public Lab’s would-be co-founders, Shannon Dosemagen, Jeff Warren and Stewart Long, convened in the Gulf Coast with a plan to use helium balloons, kites and inexpensive digital cameras to loft their own "community satellites" over the spill.
The trio, in partnership with local New Orleans nonprofits and collaborators from across the United States, trained over one hundred local volunteers and activists who then collected over 100,000 aerial images of the coastline before, during, and after the oil spread. Using MapKnitter, an open source platform created by the group, residents stitched these images into high-resolution maps of the disaster. Through a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, these community-created maps were then uploaded to Google Earth making them globally accessible. The maps of the spill received broad media coverage, including being featured by the New York Times, BBC, PBS, and the Boston Globe, allowing residents to speak their truth to the world about what was going on in the Gulf Coast.