In this project we create a crowdsourced image of the sky. Multiple observers are positioned at GPS coordinates that form the points of a grid. At  the moment of the satellite flyover, they take photographs looking directly up.  Their images are stitched together to form a single large image, opposite to the one taken by the satellite.

A smartphone app lets the observers self-organize at the times of satellite flyovers in any geolocation, coordinate the action, take the pictures in sync, and see the resulting crowdsourced image and the satellite image.

The human array forms an optical sensor, a large eye of a new socio-technological apparatus.

Picture Sky is a project by Karolina Sobecka and Christopher Baker, with Ken Caldeira.

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Here’s an example case:
The lowest clouds appear at 2000ft.  The highest clouds are over 20,000ft.  The observer grid is spaced accordingly to the current atmospheric conditions (during a high cloud ceiling a much larger area can be covered with fewer observers).

Assuming an FOV of phone cameras to be 45º or wider, and a cloud ceiling at 3000 ft, we position the observers 1 mile apart to get some overlap in their images.

Here’s the center of the observer grid in Berlin. The square in the center is spaced 1 mile apart, and the rest of the positions are 2 miles apart. In Berlin at Latitude 52º 30′ 0″, one mile is equivalent to 1º 24.9′ of degree Longitude (or .0236 in decimal) and 52″ degree Latitude (or .01450).

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And a few closeups:

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Picture Sky is part of a series of interdisciplinary projects investigating our new relation to nature in the age of Anthropocene. It grew out of Clouds From Both Sides, a project where a single photograph is taken at the time of the satellite flyover. Along with taking the image, an observation is conducted which represents a human perspective on the clouds, climate, data, technology, and ways of constructing knowledge. When doing a cloud observation with Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology, we wondered what it would actually take to create an image equivalent to the one taken by the satellite. This eventually led to Picture Sky. In Picture Sky the single human perspective is replaced with a crowdsourced view, a networked perspective.

Ground truth

This action is based on the practice of collecting ‘ground truth’ necessary whenever a representation of reality is built from large amount of remote data (for example in the fields of cartography, meteorology, artificial intelligence, etc.) It is a practice of collecting human judgements and training machines on them, a process in which the data points are compared to what is there in reality in order to verify the data. Through this process the machine can become more human by internalizing a mass of human judgements. The humans as well become more machine, utilizing their body and sensory apparatus as actuators and inputs for a socio-technological system. In PictureSKy we adapt the strategy of over-identificaiton with the system and make it a site of creative intervention.

The social is always a part of the technological. Even though we still think of technological progress as driven by he discrete developments of single pieces of hardware such as a steam engine or a car, it is the large sociotechnological systems that come with them (such as the network of railroads, the reservoir of technical—scientific—knowledge, the specially trained workforce, the financial apparatus, the means of acquiring raw materials, etc) that are far more transformative of our reality. It is the mundane, boring tasks of each node in the network that amount to a revolutionary transformation.

Utilizing technology already distributed through a social network, implanted on each individual, in this project we craft a sociotechnological apparatus through which effort of hundreds of people is coordinated in a non-utalitarian act of perception, reflection and idleness. We aim to make craft of the enabling and choreography of a network.

Visual perspective

As many thinkers have pointed out, the ability to see the Earth from space was influential in shaping our concepts of ourselves in nature. “Landscape,” a concept which emerged with rediscovery of the science of ‘optics’, is a portion of a land which the eye can comprehend at a glance, and as a form is linked closely with social, cultural perceptions of the natural world. This definition of the landscape depends on the frame to mark out the difference between what you see from the unseen. Thanks to ubiquity of satellite imagery, our conceptual frame has been widening and now includes all Earth as seen from space. Such image is a pictorial reinforcement of the concept of nature as comprehensible by scientific description, as finite.

Clive Hamilton writes about this conceptual shift precipitated by the image of Earth seen from space: “It is often said that the first full image of the ‘blue planet’ revealed it to be precious, fragile and protected only by a wafer-thin atmospheric layer, and reinforced the imperative for better stewardship of our ‘only home’. In contrast to these numinous readings, the NASA photograph entrenched the apprehension of the Earth as picture, as total object, and thus reinforced the instrumentalist conception of the Earth. In this way, the image was not a break from technological thinking but its affirmation.”

As opposed to that ‘total image,’ we take many fragments of the opposite total view, limited images that might not seamlessly fit together but present overlaps, contradictions and gaps.