Open Reef

Drones and spatial storytelling

About Project


We are changing the way science and society see and explore vulnerable island environments around the world through drone mapping, open data, storytelling, and citizen science.


Open Reef launched in 2016 in the Central American country of Belize, home to the second largest reef system in the world. In less than 20 fieldwork days, we have successfully drone mapped and processed nearly 150 islands in Belize. Our innovative methods are fully developed and ready to be deployed in drone mapping missions around the world to protect and conserve the world’s most vulnerable island environments.

It Takes a Village

We are a group of passionate, diverse, and energetic people committed to better connecting science and society. Open Reef was founded in Belize in 2016 during a casual, afternoon beach conversation among friends dreaming of what was possible. We are now expanding around the world.

The Open Reef team is comprised of faculty and students from University of Central Florida, University of Belize, State University of New York Plattsburgh; independent research and education consultants; educators; youth; and citizen scientists like you. Open Reef is an initiative of Citizen Science GIS, a 2017 Esri Special Achievement in GIS Award winner (one of four higher education awardees worldwide).

Additional Open Reef partners for the Belize work include: Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Belize, Belize Port Authority, The Smithsonian Institute, MarineGeo, The U.S. National Science Foundation, Hamanasi Resort, Total Business Solutions Limited Belize, Belize Telemedia Limited, and James Cook University.


If you can’t clearly see vulnerable island environments, how can you begin to understand these places?

The lack of freely available, high resolution aerial imagery and related location-based data of vulnerable island environments around the world make it difficult, if not impossible, to develop:

  1. Informed decisions through environmental impact assessments and ecosystem services valuations
  2. Sustainable tourism and educational marketing strategies to highlight the beauty and attractions of islands
  3. Informed decision-making related to disaster management and evacuation of the world’s most vulnerable island populations

Drones, science, and society can address this challenge.

Using affordable, consumer-level drone technologies for environmental monitoring and analyses is a cost-effective and time efficient solution that can open up data, create shared partnership opportunities, improve data quality, and engage society in an exploration of our world.

Drone technologies are affordable and engage society in scientific problem-solving.

The typical archaic methods of aerial image acquisition involve:

  1. Chartering a manned aerial vehicle and taking photos with a digital camera, which then need to be georeferenced or
  2. Purchasing expensive, low-resolution satellite imagery.

Both methods are also void of local training and knowledge development in drone usage, mapping, and image processing, making community-based problem solving challenging if not impossible. Open Reef’s drone strategies are affordable, and they open up the possibilities of science and society working together.

Our Core Beliefs

  1. Uphold the ideals of shared, open science.
  2. Respect all communities and environments depicted in our open data.
  3. Engage in only positive, safe, and ethical uses of our open data.
  4. Share findings generated through the use of our open data with broader society in an accessible and understandable manner.
  5. Encourage the next generation of diverse, community-minded scientists through inclusive research and education experiences.
  6. Utilize our data for the public good, which prohibits the use of our open data to be sold, marketed, or used for profit without our written consent.
  7. Credit Open Reef, Citizen Science GIS, and relevant partners as the original content creators of our open data.

Open Reef Team

Dr. Timothy L. Hawthorne

Founding Research Director

Lain Graham

PhD Candidate & Key Personnel

Dr. Bo Yang

Postdoc | drone mapping

Michael Feinman

Undergraduate Research Assistant

Christine Munisteri

Key Personnel

Isani Palacio

Drone Field Assistant

Kirsten Bouck

Undergraduate Research Assistant

Nicholas Altizer

Key Personnel

Patricia Bencivenga

Student Staff

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