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Cornell Lab of Ornithology


OilReporter: smartphones for science

Geolocation, texting, videos... exploring the potential (and the boundaries) of rapid response science with smartphones.

OilReporter: smartphones for science

OilReporter application on iPhone, screenshot from

Citizen science has been at the forefront in documenting the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Existing projects, such as eBird, leveraged infrastructure and a network of participants to locate vulnerable wildlife and habitats.

Also responding to the disaster was a team of researchers and software developers who, within just three days of the initial explosion, created and launched a mobile app and datasharing platform called OilReporter. This interface allows smartphone users (iPhone or Android) to record and report the status of beaches and wildlife. Standard reference data (geolocation and date/time stamps), combined with multiple media capabilities (photos, videos, texting) support both rich and precise coverage of the ongoing crisis.

In the past, citizen science projects have enabled rapid response to an event only when a network was already in place. Today, the network is anyone with a smartphone, providing the opportunity to engage more than just those inclined to connect with a subject of interest. The trick, especially in a time of crisis, is to engage that network safely and expediently.

On the safety front, rapid response projects face a fine line between getting access to data and getting in the way. Be sure to check out the pop-up disclaimer upon first visit to the OilReporter site. Adopting a "first, do no harm" approach, the site pointedly differentiates observing from interfering, getting the point across with a friendly nudge ("Because, you know, it's not cool to cause a bigger problem... right?").

To advise future expedient responses, OilReporter creators were deeply involved in a July 2010 Consortium entitled: Evolving Engagement of Volunteer Technology Communities and Academia in Times and Places of Crisis  (agenda and notes available here). Participants also included respondents to the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Among other needs, this Consortium raised the issue of how to anticipate a crisis, in order to design for appropriate engagement. For example, despite its robust functionality, OilReporter reports seem to have been few and far between. Peak reports in the Florida panhandle, early June, suggest that signs of oil may have encouraged use... perhaps echoing a standard citizen science concern of how to emphasize the importance of reporting the unremarkable (in this case, clean beaches). Overall, the potential for rapid platform development open whole new worlds for project to respond to disasters, but raises new questions for how to also rapidly recruit and engage participants (without the luxury of easily knowing where participation will take place, or much about the audiences' needs, interests... or even smartphone access). 


More on smartphones for science:

Participatory Sensing White Paper from the Woodrow Wilson Institute and the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing


More citizen science on the Gulf oil spill:

Grassroots Mapping of the Gulf with kites and balloons

Ghost Crab monitoring

Apalachicola Riverkeeper's OSPREY (Oil Spill REcoverY) Flickr dataset


Citizen science, volunteer monitoring, participatory action research... this site supports organizers of all initiatives where public participants are involved in scientific research.

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