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Can Citizen Science Save Us From Environmental Disasters?

February 2, 2017
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Can Citizen Science Save Us From Environmental Disasters?
An aerial photograph shows fracking operations in Appalachia. Photo by D. Manthos, SkyTruth via LightHawk
The team behind SkyTruth, a tech-driven nonprofit that uses satellite imagery to monitor threats to our world, is counting on it.

During the rush-hour commute on Tokyo’s trains, it’s easy to spot riders gaming on their phones, sorting sweets in Candy Crush or mustering armies in Clash of Clans. But Kevin Hemphill, a geeky ex-pat, played a different game on his iPad, flipping through images of forests and meadows in Pennsylvania that had been cleared. Tapping the screen, he marked the location of ponds and transmitted the data to a nonprofit halfway across the globe.

Through the web-based FrackFinder, a project of the nonprofit SkyTruth, Hemphill, nostalgic for his childhood home in the Rust Belt of Ohio, pored over the images of the Keystone State. He was looking for evidence of hydraulic fracturing. Better known “fracking,” it’s the process of blasting chemicals, sand and water into underground rock layers to dislodge natural gas — a controversial method of energy extraction that’s brought jobs to the region while potentially putting locals’ health at risk. In a uniquely digital “citizen science” effort, Hemphill and hundreds of volunteers around the world have plotted Pennsylvania’s energy infrastructure, creating a detailed map that can be shared with activists, regulators and academics.

Biologists have long relied on group expeditions to study wildlife populations, but FrackFinder brings the process online, giving anyone with a keyboard the chance to participate. As users click through FrackFinder, SkyTruth’s team hopes the abstract science of environmental exploitation becomes tangible. Their pictures, shot from aircraft and 400-mile high satellites, clearly depict the damage that can be hard to visualize, and even harder to reverse.

“We can look at not just one township or county or state. We’re able to look at changes across entire regions over decades. That’s almost like having access to a time machine,” says David Manthos, SkyTruth’s program coordinator. “It’s the region-wide perspective we offer that you just can’t get from one place on the ground.”

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Geologist John Amos founded the nonpartisan Skytruth, which collects satellite images of potential eco-hazards, in 2001, moving it to tiny Shepherdstown, W.V., two years later. A former consultant for a natural resources exploration firm, Amos put similar tracking tools into the hands of conservationists, as a way to atone for his past “disservice to the planet.” But for nearly a decade, SkyTruth remained a one-man shop. Few donors could see how SkyTruth’s aerial imagery might help the environmental movement. That all changed in April 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. BP and the Coast Guard estimated 1,000 barrels of oil were gushing out each day, but after studying photos of a vast, shimmering pool of oil on the ocean’s surface, he and oceanographer Dr. Ian MacDonald calculated the spill was more than 20 times worse than officials claimed. After publishing a critical blog post, the federal government quickly revised its numbers upward.

Now a 12-person staff, SkyTruth has used their planetary perspective to create the first repository of mountaintop-removal mining sites in Appalachia; to film flaring over North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields by equipping a high-altitude hydrogen balloon with a camera; and to track unregulated commercial fishing in the world’s most remote waters. After wrapping up in Ohio, FrackFinder will launch in its third state, West Virginia, early this year. Analyses of other states will likely follow.

How is this data used? FrackFinder’s crowdsourced analysis confirmed the exact location of 1,400 active wells and 7,835 wastewater ponds, allowing a team of public health researchers at Johns Hopkins to verify a list of drilling permits provided by the state. Guided by that knowledge, paired with extensive medical records, the university epidemiologists proved that asthmatics were 1.5 to 4 times more likely to have an attack near the drilling, and mothers were 40 percent more likely to give birth prematurely near the most active sites. The researchers weren’t able to pinpoint why locals sickened — maybe sleeplessness from noisy, earth-shaking vibrations, stress from dropping home values or the chemicals themselves — but SkyTruth’s data helped them prove a point.

Surprisingly, crowdsourcing the information is actually harder for SkyTruth than sifting through the images themselves. But the team continues to invest in citizen science because they know the value of the public’s involvement. “It actually puts an image of what’s going on in the world in front of citizens, so they can see for themselves,” Manthos explains. “What kinds of regions are being developed? Is it all forest, rural land or a little of the suburbs? We’re exposing people, up close and personal, to these images. That’s a formative process, and they can draw their own conclusions.”

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Hemphill, for example, says he used to support fracking as a reasonable way to bring much-needed economic growth to Northern Appalachia’s struggling towns. His support persisted, even as he analyzed nearly 5,000 images of Pennsylvania’s scarred terrain. “Wow, they’re really tearing up the earth,” he thought, almost disinterestedly. But because of his exposure to the issue through FrackFinder, he began paying more attention to relevant news stories, reading, for instance, that some homeowners could set the contaminated water in their kitchen sink on fire. Eventually, he turned against the unconventional drilling method for good.

The process influenced Hemphill in another way, too, by reaffirming his faith in technology’s possibilities beyond our social media addictions and diversionary entertainment. “People are on the internet a lot. What do you have to show for so many hours of your life?” he asks. “Especially for millennials, where does it go from here? It’s not a guaranteed thing that we all will just watch Netflix forever. The internet needs to go beyond that now.”

Hemphill imagines closing our Tetris-stacking apps, halting the Instagram scroll and doing something meaningful online. With just a few clicks, he still believes, the Earth can be improved.

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This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

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