Innovative Uses for Mapillary in Field-Based Research Projects

Street-level imagery from the Mapillary platform is not only helping to build better maps all over the globe, it has also found its way into new and exciting research projects. We recently spoke with three researchers who have found innovative uses for the Mapillary platform in salmon habitat restoration, documenting the experience of a Victorian cemetery, and the fight against invasive pests.

Researchers, especially those working out in the field, know that documentation is crucial to the success of a project. Mapillary offers a unique solution for researchers since all of the images on the platform are time-stamped and automatically positioned on the map. This allows you to focus on the field work itself, and go back later to make more observations about the environment.

Salmon habitat restoration in Norway

Wild salmon in Norwegian rivers is on the decline with numbers nearly half what they were 30 years ago. Anders Foldvik, Research Scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), is working to understand salmon habitats in Norway and to help hydropower companies mitigate their impacts. But what do you do when you need pictures of river beds and aerial imagery isn’t an option?

Norway is a country with excellent coverage when it comes to aerial imagery, but in many parts, shade from steep mountains and forests make images of river beds almost unusable. At first, Anders turned to drone imagery as a potential solution, but there were operational challenges that made it a difficult process to continue. Professional drone mappers were very expensive and the amount of time it took huge amounts of time to cover even a small portion of the river.

Anders documents rivers in northern Norway as riverview on Mapillary

When looking for potential solutions to his data collection problem, Anders came across Mapillary and set out to capture 360-deg images of his rivers while white water kayaking. According to Anders:

I can cover a river really fast this way. Heading downstream with a 360° camera for a few hours would be the same coverage as a week of drone flying. Afterward, I have the map, I can choose exactly what part of the river I want to look at and find the right images faster than I can bring them up on my own computer—and I can actually share them with people.

Anders kayaking in northern Norway

As someone who enjoys the sport in his free time, he also sees a lot of potential for other kayakers, often asking friends of his to bring a camera along on their own trips. He thinks if more people start capturing imagery of rivers, it could be a great way for people to get an impression of what the rivers are like while planning their own down-stream adventures.

Learning by experience

Walking Ethnography is a tool that social scientists use to engage with places in an active way. The idea is to document your movement through a space rather than documenting the place itself, and to engage with the space by noting how it feels, sounds and even smells. In a recent ethnographic methods conference in London, Danielle Drozdzewski and Natasha Webster, two researchers from Stockholm University incorporated Mapillary into their workshop titled “Walking Among the Dead: Encountering the Past Digitally and with Movement.”

Nunhead Cemetary in London, England The course participants documented Nunhead Cemetery, one of the Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries in London, England

One of the goals of this course was to not only learn about new technology, but to understand the impact these tools have on the fieldwork itself. According to Dr. Webster,

I appreciate how Mapillary created a document of what we had done. I can look back at Mapillary now and see the workshop as we moved through the space. I will be using Mapillary in my own research and I would definitely suggest it for other researchers. I would recommend walking both with and without the camera while doing fieldwork, as in that moment I was very aware of the technology and how I had to move differently while using the camera.

The strong ethical aspect of using Mapillary was a major plus to the group. Knowing that faces and license plates would be automatically blurred was beneficial, especially for answering the questions of a curious park worker who stopped the group to ask about what they were doing.

Mapping urban trees

Invasive pests are a problem in many parts of the world. The emerald ash borer, for example, is an exotic beetle that has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America. In order to stop invasive pests, a solid understanding of how they spread through an ecosystem is needed, and in particular an urban ecosystem. Unfortunately, tree inventories are an expensive endeavor that many municipalities lack the resources to complete as they involve sending a team into the field to go from tree to tree manually.

Stefanie Lumnitz, Master’s student at the University of British Columbia, is working to create a solution to this tree inventory problem by using street-level imagery from Mapillary to create low-cost tree inventories across entire cities. According to Stefanie:

These insects are usually host-specific, they have certain trees they attack and others they leave alone. We need to know where these trees are located in the city to be able to say if and how the insects would spread.

The first step in Stefanie’s project was to locate the trees, which she has done using computer vision. Instance specific segmentation allowed her to find the outlines and monocular depth estimation was combined with the image coordinates to place the trees on a map—something she has been able to do within about 6 meters of their actual location.

Identifying trees with computer vision

The next step for this project is to run a genus identifier and then eventually to train and identify whether there is insect damage in the trees. For this future work, Stefanie plans to collect more training data by capturing her own imagery at different times of the year.

Mapillary allows anyone to document the places that are important to them. So whether you are a seasoned researcher, or a student just starting out, the Mapillary platform offers a simple solution for documenting your location of interest. Check out our help pages for quick guides on getting started with your own capturing projects.

/Lindsey, Press Officer and Geographer

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