Open IR - Arlene Ducao "democratizes" satellite data

February 18, 2014

OpenIR is a research project focused on “democratizing” free, public infrared satellite data, primarily by making this environmental data available as imagery via standard web map systems. Arlene Ducao, who likes to describe herself as ‘creative computerist’, is the founder of the OpenIR research project as well as co-founder and principal of “The DuKode Studio”. Arlene joins us today to tell us a bit more about the story behind OpenIR.


empowering people.Award (epA):  Arlene, you like to describe yourself as a ‘creative computerist’ what do you mean by that and is it one of the reason why you came up with the idea of OpenIR? I mean interpreting infrared satellite data is not the most obvious interest for a young person….

Arlene Ducao: Before the word “Maker” became so popular, my co-founder Ilias Koen and I were looking for ways to characterize our practice, which ranges from scientific visualization, to wearable computing, all through an artistic lens. We liked the word “computerist,” which doesn’t get much use even today.

OpenIR came about through our years in developing data visualizations, particularly bio-geographical satellite visualizations, for clients like American Museum of Natural History, NASA, and the like. As artists, Ilias and I were inspired by the way that infrared satellite imagery’s wild colors were used to do important things—namely analyze the environment. We were surprised that this data was not more in the in the public eye, especially since crowdmapping of natural disasters was gaining so much prominence. So we started OpenIR.


epA: Interesting! How does it exactly work?  Where do you get the infrared satellite from and how do you develop the applications that transfer the raw data into actual maps?

Arlene Ducao: We use freely available global data, mostly from NASA and USGS, and then run a suite of computer scripts using a tool called the Geospatial Data Abstraction Library. These scripts convert the data into understandable infrared maps. We then convert those maps into web-accessible maps, and annotate the maps to help every day users understand them.


epA: The pilot region for the project has been Indonesia, but as far as I understand the same approach could in principle be used everywhere around the globe. Assuming OpenIR would have been used in the Philippines preceding Typhoon Yolanda, what could have been the benefits? What were the benefits today?

Arlene Ducao: This is a great question because the Philippines is my ancestral homeland, and I thought a lot about OpenIR during the Typhoon and its aftermath. One of OpenIR’s functions is that it can generate simple vulnerability maps based on a region’s elevation, irrigation / surface water, and inhabited areas. A simple vulnerability map for Tacloban, the city most affected by the Typhoon, may have helped with some basic resilience planning.


epA: Well, the prototype region is still Indonesia. Have you had the change to go there and talk to the people about their needs? Are there people that are actively using OpenIR?

Arlene Ducao: We have had this chance. We took a month-long trip to the Indonesian cities/towns of Jakarta, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, and Yogyakarta in January 2013, and held a long series of user studies. It was really informative because Indonesia is an archipelago, with wildly varying environmental and economic concerns: there were severe monsoon floods in Jakarta when we visited, but it was dry in Kalimantan, where the main concern is with deforestation by palm oil industries. In Yogyakarta, the main concern is pyroclastic flow from volcanic eruptions. It was really interesting to discuss how OpenIR could be applied for each of these concerns. We also explored the use of Google Earth Engine, which displays some kinds of IR data over a much longer time span.

One of the most usable instances of OpenIR was through its prototype plug-in for the crowd-mapping software Ushahidi. We deployed an instance of the OpenIR-enabled Ushahdi for flooding both in Jakarta and after Hurricane Sandy in New York City, and these instances are still up and still usable today.


epA: “The DuKode Studio” has some other very fascinating projects, can you tell us a bit more about them?

Arlene Ducao: Sure. Our roots are in science visualization, and we continue to do this kind of work for the American Museum of Natural History and for NYU’s Consortium for the Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education. We teach classes on DIY making, geospatial visualization, and hardware prototyping at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, the Lower Eastside Girls Club, and through Columbia University’s Tow Center. My co-founder Ilias is trained in the fine arts, and we’ve been experimenting with using traditional media (i.e. clay, wood) and digital fabrication techniques.

We just launched a new business, DuKorp, to commercialize one of our most popular projects, MindRider ( MindRider is a brain-reading helmet that originated from my time at MIT Media Lab, and it explores the intersection between mental balance, physical fitness, and safety. MindRider is supported by a Computational Fashion Honorary Fellowship at Eyebeam in Manhattan, the MIT-affiliated E14 Fund, and NYU, so hopefully you’ll see this product for sale very soon.


Thanks so much for your time Arlene!

Arlene Ducao
Arlene Ducao

Arlene Ducao is a Co-PI of The DuKode Studio in Brooklyn, a Research Affiliate at MIT, and an instructor at NYU. She is also the CEO of DuKorp, a brand-new startup that makes stylish quantified headgear. She develops creative computing projects that examine the relationship between our natural landscape, built environments, and ourselves.