One Picture Post is Worth A Thousand Pictures: OR How Can Outdoor Digital Photographers Become Citizen Scientists Who Participate in Environmental Monitoring

A view of the newly installed Picture Post at Wells Reserve Laudholm Farm.  This is the Overlook post.

A view of the newly installed Picture Post at Wells Reserve Laudholm Farm. This is the Overlook post.

By Jeff Beaudry (University of Southern Maine), Annette Schloss (University of New Hampshire), John Pickle (Concord Academy, MA), and Fabio Carrera (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

Take a walk. Bring your digital camera. Take nine pictures (8 land-based and one of the sky) from a Picture Post, upload them to our Picture Post website (http://picturepost.unh.edu), a digital photography environmental science community and you will receive thousands of digital photographs in return. The Picture Post environmental monitoring project is a citizen science initiative funded by NASA to create opportunities for informal and formal science educators and the community-at-large to collaborate by sharing digital photographs from Picture Post sites.

What is a Picture Post?

Picture Post is a project aimed at involving citizens in local environmental monitoring by 1) taking digital photographs at a designated Picture Post site in a consistent, sequential order, 2) uploading the digital photographs to the Picture Post website, 3) examining the digital photographs using the image analysis tools on the Picture Post website, 4) continuing to take photos on a regular weekly basis, and 5) sharing digital photographic records with local community organizations dedicated to environmental monitoring and use.

John Pickle, inventor of Picture Post, currently teaching at Concord High School, MA, assisting Pat Maloney in uploading photos to Picture Post website.

John Pickle, inventor of Picture Post, currently teaching at Concord High School, MA, assisting Pat Maloney in uploading photos to Picture Post website.

A Picture Post is a 4”x4” post made of wood or recycled plastic with enough of the post buried in the ground so it extends below the frost line and stays secure throughout the year. Atop the post is a small octagonal-shaped platform or cap on which you can rest your camera to take a series of nine photographs. The post can stand alone, and is recommended to be about four feet high, modeled on what foresters call “diameter at breast height” or DBH. Digital Earth Watch partner Barry Rock and Mike Gagnon from Forest Watch suggested that eight pictures would easily cover the complete 360 degrees around the post, and one picture straight up skyward would record cloud conditions or the forest canopy overhead. The challenge of performing accurate scientific Earth observation monitoring is to return on a regular basis, ideally once a week or once every two weeks, to record changes in the environmental scene. For a multimedia introduction and demonstration of a Picture Post, watch this movie http://media.usm.maine.edu/~jbeaudry/picturepostbasics1/picturepostbasics1.html.

The Picture Post is supported by a team of scientists and educators with the purpose of developing more citizen understanding of local and regional environments. The website is based at the University of New Hampshire and is supervised by Annette Schloss, Ph.D., who has worked with visual repositories of NASA satellite data such as EOS-Webster.

Screenshot of Picture Post websiteJohn Pickle at Concord Academy and his fellow environmental observers devised the picture post concept as a way to create a standardized record of the environment in Menotomy Rocks Park in Arlington, Massachusetts. He was inspired to create the original Picture Post in April 2005 by listening to elderly people describe how the landscape had changed over their lifetimes, and his desire to build a visual record of the park.

Digital Earth Watch: Picture Post Website

The Picture Post website is a visual repository with the purposes of 1) storing and sharing high-quality digital photographs that serve to monitor local environments, and 2) promoting community partnerships to conduct environmental monitoring and action. The website has a Google map which shows the location of all existing Picture Posts, a sample of what a nine-picture sequence looks like, and eight tabs across the top of the page. The icons or pins on Google Maps show Picture Post locations with summary information about each post.

Three sections are particularly useful, 1) My Page, 2) Stuff You Can Do, and 3) Educators.
My Page – First, sign up as a member of the Picture Post community and then manage your own, personal page. A list of favorite posts can be created, as well as those Picture Posts you have created. There is space to write observation notes about each photograph. There are tools to view the digital photographs: the “Scroll Through Time” takes you for a timed view of the photos, week-by-week, season-by-season. The website also displays a MODIS satellite view, a contribution by Annette Schloss and Bill Armstrong, UNH Picture Post webmasters, of the Picture Post site in True Color and in NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), a commonly used differentiation formula to quantify the density of plant growth on the Earth’s surface. The satellite view is meant to extend what is observed locally to a regional perspective.

Stuff You Can Do – There is a wide range of information about how to set up and manage a Picture Post, as well as “plant monitoring activities,” applications and projects you can do with Picture Post digital photographs.
Annette Schloss in the foreground, DEW Picture Post co-PI, at workshop for Picture Post, background is Pat Maloney, director Project Learning Tree in Maine, on Back Cove path maintained by Portland Trails, Portland, ME.

Annette Schloss in the foreground, DEW Picture Post co-PI, at workshop for Picture Post, background is Pat Maloney, director Project Learning Tree in Maine, on Back Cove path maintained by Portland Trails, Portland, ME.



Educators – We provide Picture Post users with FREE downloadable digital image analysis software like Color Basics (learning about digital color, games and challenges), Digital Image Basics (learning about pixels, colors, false color, and spatial measurement tools), Analyzing Digital Images (advanced analysis of plant health using color, false color and masking techniques), and Forest Analysis (a program that shows the changes in forest cover in an area over the past 390 years). The software comes with print versions of guides, help videos and quick installation on a PC or Mac.


Growing the Environmental Monitoring Community – One Picture Post at a Time!

As of July 2010 there were thirty Picture Posts. To locate current sites, the Picture Post website has an interactive Google map which begins with North America and expands world-wide. The longitude and latitude and a thumbnail photograph of each Picture Post is given, and can be viewed by clicking directly on the post’s map link. The website allows users to examine all of the picture posts, which are formatted to copy and download to your computer.

To create a Picture Post: 1) build or buy or adapt a post, and 2) select a site for your post. The post itself can be fabricated with basic tools and instructions are provided on the website (http://picturepost.unh.edu). Soon, the NASA-funded project will also be available on “smart phones.” A group of researchers led by Fabio Carrera, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is developing mobile applications for “smart phones” that will allow the creation of “virtual Picture Posts”.

Selecting Sites for Picture Posts

Jeff Beaudry installing the Picture Post in Sept, 2008, on Mackworth Island, Falmouth, ME, to study the reforestation and recovery of land struck by the 2006 Patriots’ Day Storm.

Jeff Beaudry installing the Picture Post in Sept, 2008, on Mackworth Island, Falmouth, ME, to study the reforestation and recovery of land struck by the 2006 Patriots’ Day Storm.

The selection of a Picture Post site is a fascinating way to make the connection with your environment and your community. Some key questions to ask: 1) what is an area of environmental interest that you would like to observe, 2) how will the site change over time, and 3) how accessible is your site to the public? Try to create a collaboration between informal science (e.g., parks, Audubon Society, trail management groups) with formal science education (e.g., public and private schools, colleges, and universities). For example, the Picture Post on Mackworth Island was chosen to observe the re-forestation project now taking place. Another example is a series of six posts that were set up to monitor multiple points on the multi-purpose path that rings Back Cove, in Portland, Maine. The installation of new mileage markers by Portland Trails (http://www.trails.org/) around Back Cove provided a ready-made set of Picture Posts. The synergy between the Portland Trails and Picture Post is an example of environmental collaboration.

To initiate the Picture Post project on Mackworth Island, it was important to collaborate with the school, and the park ranger from the Governor Baxter State Park, who represents the custodian of the land. The group combined formal science education, a teacher from the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, with informal science education, the park ranger responsible for Mackworth Island and Governor Baxter State Park, and Jeff Beaudry, a University of Southern Maine professor and an interested citizen scientist. The team was intrigued by the destruction of trees and plant life on Mackworth Island, which touched almost every part of the island. In conversations with Rob Gillies, the science teacher, three potential sites were identified based on several criteria: area affected by storms, sufficient trees to observe, potential for growth over time, and access for students with physical disabilities (i.e., a path with wheelchair access). In collaboration with Fritz Appleby, the Forest Ranger, the group settled on the fourth selection, a field on the northwest side of the island less than 20 meters off the trail. It is a wonderful example of a community partnership.

Environmental Monitoring Partners – Be the Post!

View of the field, once a forest, on Mackworth Island, Falmouth, ME, currently the site of a Picture Post since 2008.

View of the field, once a forest, on Mackworth Island, Falmouth, ME, currently the site of a Picture Post since 2008.

Since the Picture Post program began, posts have been set up to monitor trails, forests, water, wetlands, gardens and specialty landscaping plots. Forest Watch, the university-school collaboration to monitor white pines by direct observation and remote sensing, became a Picture Post partner. Project Learning Tree and Forest Inventory Growth (FIG) were also good candidates for Picture Post because they seek to investigate all species, types of soil, and conditions in a 30-meter square plot. Other citizen science organizations supporting Picture Post include Project Budburst and the National Phenology Network. Recently, Suzanne Eder, the education specialist at the Laudholm Farm, a National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine, and her staff selected four Picture Post sites, an overlook (accessible to the public), and three less accessible sites, a field, a marsh, and a beach. Picture Post sites have been established for Audubon Society centers at Gilsland Farm and in Scarborough Marsh in Maine.

Picture Post – The Next Generation

The Picture Post team hopes to add more tools to the website, including one that will provide quick indicators of plant health, as well as the virtual Picture Post, which will use the Android mobile operating system to take pictures and reference them precisely with an “onion skin” tool on the phone. With just a camera (or smart phone), a citizen scientist can create or view a Picture Post, and support the development of an Earth observation environmental monitoring network in their own community.