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Want To Help Report The Oil Spill? There's An App For That

by Andy Carvin
May 26, 2010

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With tar balls and oil sheens beginning to reach the Gulf Coast, government officials and wildlife groups are anxious to document the oil spill's impact. As has been the case in previous oil spills, they've rolled out toll-free numbers for people to report any oil sightings or distressed wildlife. Thanks to the widespread adoption of GPS-friendly smartphones, though, it's now possible to gather this data more precisely than ever. And yes, there's now an app for that: Oil Reporter.

CrisisCommons, a coalition of volunteer software developers that I've been involved with since the Haiti Earthquake, rolled out the Oil Reporter app yesterday. Available for free on both iPhone and Android phones, the app is a simple interface for people who encounter oil along the Gulf Coast. Oil Reporter lets you to snap a picture of the oil or tar ball, describe the context and offer additional details regarding wildlife and wetlands impact. When you submit your report, the app detects your location using your phone's GPS, so your report can be pinpointed on a map.

The data collected through Oil Reporter, which will be curated and managed by San Diego State University's Visualization Center, is open for anyone to access and use to create their own visualizations or analysis. CrisisCommons and the university are also inviting organizations to request specific visualizations, as well as custom versions of the app containing new data fields relevant to their oil spill-related response activities.

While the CrisisCommons team works on creating visualizations of the data, they're also getting ready to roll out an Adopt-The-Beach program. This crowdsourcing initiative will invite members of the public to virtually adopt a quadrant of beach along the Gulf Coast. Utilizing the latest high-resolution imagery, volunteers will be taught how to identify oil in the photos and report them. The organizers hope this project will help monitor those areas of coastline that are sparsely populated or difficult to reach.

We'll let you know when the Adopt-A-Beach project is ready to go; until then, please check out the Oil Reporter app. If you live along the Gulf Coast and have an iPhone or Android phone, you can help document the oil spill's impact.

Andy Carvin (@acarvin) is senior strategist at NPR's social media desk and a volunteer with CrisisCommons.org.

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