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Technologies Track Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, Provide New Views of its Effects

Crowdsourcing allows the public to report impacts from the oil spill and could provide the federal government with another view of the disaster.

The now-infamous oil leak resulting from an April 20 oil rig explosion had, as of May 17, spewed an estimated 5.7 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, according to estimates from a PBS NewsHour widget. With 210,000 gallons flowing into the ocean each day, myriad technologies have been deployed to not only stop the leak, but also to track its devastation and cleanup. The New York Times, for example, has created an interactive map showing where the oil has drifted each day, pulling data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Coast Guard.

Crowdsourcing - outsourcing tasks to a larger group through an open call - could allow the federal government to get another look at the spill's impact. Using online submissions, texts, tweets and e-mails from those experiencing the spill's effects, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), a New Orleans-based environmental health and justice nonprofit, is collecting and posting incident reports on its Oil Spill Crisis Map.

The Oil Spill Crisis Map is based on Ushahidi open source software and produced by students at Tulane University, in conjunction with LABB and Radical Designs. Ushahidi, pronounced "ooh-sha-hee-dee," was initially developed to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout Kenya after the post-election fallout in early 2008. LABB already was coding Ushahidi for reporting environmental hazards, and students in Tulane Professor Nathan Morrow's GIS classes helped modify the open source application to track the oil spill.

Morrow said what initially prompted Anne Rolfes, founding director of LABB, to implement the map was that in Louisiana, although citizens can report vague environmental hazards to the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the DEQ only accepts detailed reports via phone from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. "She works with all these communities that want better access to reporting accidents and chemical spills," Morrow said. "And that's how the idea came about - to give these citizens a little more voice, so they could write or text in any time they see an accident or smell a bad odor."

Rolfes added that although there was no restriction on frequency, DEQ's response in general is terrible. "This is one [way] we were going to take matters into our own hands," she said.

Because the architecture for this project already was in place when the oil spill occurred, the focus shifted from general environmental hazard reporting in the state to reporting specifically on the spill. "It was timing and coincidence that the students were still there, still available," Morrow said. "They just took it and inched it up to the application you see now."

To get community participation for populating the map, LABB put out a press release asking citizens to share sightings and other experiences related to the oil spill by text, tweet, e-mail and online submissions. Each eyewitness report requires a description and location information, such as address, city and state, ZIP code or coordinates. Photos and video also can be uploaded via the Web. Citizen reporters can remain anonymous or disclose their contact information.

When users submit reports, the reports are automatically added to the map. LABB has someone on shift every hour to look at those reports and ensure that they're legitimate, Rolfes said, marking them as verified if they're in line with what LABB is hearing from others in the region. "If it's something completely new that we haven't heard," Rolfe said, "we'll either wait to get more reports on the subject or we'll go look in the news and see if it's being reported in the larger media."

The current map at LABB's website is a very early version and will get much better as more functionality is added, Morrow said. "The students are still interested," he said, "and there's a whole

lot more you can do with the reporting and the way things are presented and organized."

Crowdsourcing and using open source technology is beneficial in emergencies for a few reasons, Rolfes said. "In the purest sense, it gives a person a voice no matter how rich or poor you happen to be; it allows you to put your situation up on the map for the world to see, and that's really important," she said. "The other important part is that it can share the magnitude of the problem."

With Hurricane Katrina, Rolfes added, no one was recording and collecting people's experiences in one central location. The LABB, she said, thinks the solution is a collective repository, like the Oil Spill Crisis Map.

"We believe it can help inform the emergency response and hold it accountable," Rolfes said. "In some ways this is a work in progress, but we think that by putting all the problems out on the map for all the world to see, it then creates a demand of government and of responders to meet those problems that are expressed."

LABB's efforts are paying off too. After meeting with the organization on May 11, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote on her Facebook wall: "Just wrapped a meeting at Tulane University speaking with scientists and public health experts from four states. Discussed Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing technology from Kenya that is helping people across the community track and report [oil] spill developments."