Citizen scientists needed to track oil damage–by phone

By June 30th, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Comment

MoGO: Reporting oil spill damage by iPhone.

MoGO: Reporting oil spill damage by iPhone.

An important new citizen science project turned up in our database the other day—and it urgently needs volunteers.

MoGO, short for Mobile Gulf Observatory, is an iPhone app that enlists volunteers to record and report the damage of the Gulf Coast oil spill on the region’s wildlife and environment. It was created by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who developed it several weeks ago in a hurry. They submitted it to our Project Finder in order to quickly spread the word and encourage people in the Gulf Coast region to download the free app and start using it.

MoGO enables iPhone users to photograph and geotag oil spill problems in a variety of categories: oiled, injured, and dead marine and coastal wildlife, including fish, birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals; tar balls on beaches; oil slicks on water; and oiled coastal habitats. Users can add brief descriptive notes to their photos before submitting them. For crisis situations that may demand immediate responses, MoGO offers users the option to connect to a wildlife rescue hotline.

Volunteers can submit photos & notes about injured wildlife. Geotags are added automatically.

All of MoGO’s field reports are collected in a centralized website and displayed on an interactive map. The site is currently accessible to federal researchers and rescue workers. But soon the same information will be visible to the public on the site of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The UMass scientists hope this “crowd-sourced” data will be valuable not only for gauging the oil spill’s impact but also for planning efforts to restore the region’s wildlife and ecology.

At the moment, though, MoGO needs a bigger crowd.

“That’s our first priority,” said Dr. Deepak Ganesan, an assistant professor at UMass Amherst’s department of computer science, when I spoke with him yesterday. “We need to get the word out for volunteers to contribute data. We need a lot more observations to make this large-scale, widespread coverage in order to help the recovery effort as well as to assess the impact.”

So if you have an iPhone and live in or will be traveling to the Gulf Coast, please consider downloading this app and keeping your eyes peeled.

I asked Ganesan about reports that “civilians” are increasingly restricted from visiting coastal areas affected by the oil spill. Wouldn’t that work against MoGO’s reliance on citizen scientists? He said he thought that many important areas were still accessible and added that volunteers can make an important contribution by identifying new trouble spots where the experts will need to go next.

Pointing the way—that sounds like the perfect role for citizen scientists.

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