24 Dec 2018 Story Climate change

Citizen science: crowdsourcing data to support disaster response


You’ve probably never heard of ‘groundtruthing’—the term isn’t widely known outside of scientific circles—but the concept it describes is quietly transforming how communities respond to disasters. Groundtruthing essentially means fact-checking data from satellites that only orbit the earth once a day. In a fast-moving environmental emergency, such as landslides or volcanic explosions, data needs to be updated every minute—not every day. Enter the citizen scientist.

“Citizen science is definitely happening,” said Jason Jabbour, Regional Coordinator and Senior Science Advisor at UN Environment. “It has enormous potential.” With so much of the developing world under the age of 30, the smartphone has opened up possibilities for the sharing of data as never before. With the advent of 5G technologies in major cities worldwide, this trend will only accelerate.

“We have all these devices and they’re collecting reams of information, in real time. And you have the ability to collect more specific types of information—you don’t need much training to contribute to the scientific process.”

Speaking on the sidelines of the 2018 Global Environment Outlook conference in Singapore, he outlined the connections between UN Environment and the thousands of citizen science initiatives springing up around the world. Inspiring citizens to help inform scientists can, say experts, improve their own quality of life and that of their children.

A substantial benefit of citizen science, Jabbour notes, is its direct connection to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to the environment and climate change. Rather than relying on governments to provide crucial data towards the understanding of climate change and then working on mitigation efforts, citizens are effectively becoming a shortcut to uncover accurate, relevant and up-to-the-minute data that can be acted upon by multinational organizations such as refugee organizations and environmental groups.

Citizen Science

In a world where cities, coastlines and high mountains are increasingly susceptible to climate change, Shanna McClain is Program Lead for Risk Reduction and Resilience at the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She supports the Global Environment Outlook process through climate mitigation efforts that address specific Sustainable Development Goals. “We need to make sure science has an end user or stakeholder in mind,” she says. As one of the world’s most respected and trusted repositories of data, NASA is in a unique position to help those most vulnerable to climate change.

NASA uses innovative methods to integrate science from a variety of sources which is used not only as a method for integrating community-level information, but also as a method to verify satellite data on the ground (groundtruthing).

As a result, volunteers on the ground collecting and analyzing data has become a strong force in supporting climate data capture around the world, McClain explains. Through apps developed specifically for citizens most vulnerable to climate change, NASA and local partners connect communities to the data that can help mitigate increasingly severe weather conditions. Using crowdsourced ‘pin drops’ and pictures from around the world, NASA and their co-collaborators are creating a more complete and responsive picture of climate change and disaster mitigation.

Another NASA project, Communities and Areas at Intensive Risk, includes small islands states, coastal, and high mountain region communities that face particular vulnerabilities and exposures to disaster risk. Using citizen science-based applications, authorities can monitor landslides and flood extents. This has been trialled successfully in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which experiences increasing flood extents with changing ‘King Tides’ along with subsidence, rapid growth and development. Partnering with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, they've created an app called ‘Catch the King Tide’, relying on thousands of volunteers to groundtruth the extent of the tides annually.

In these, and many other instances, NASA shares satellite data that can make a difference to people on the ground. With landslides and flood monitoring in particular, citizen groundtruthing solves two resilience challenges, explains McClain: “We ensure that what we see or what we are missing from space can be confirmed from the ground from someone who has actually witnessed it.” Satellites can detect the movement of landslides, for instance, but they only “see” the affected area depending on the orbiting paths of the satellites. “We can’t capture the entire planet all at once.”

Another benefit of the groundtruthing, says McClain, is that, “citizen science empowers the community to be more prepared.” Because they are actively contributing and engaging in the data collection and analysis process, citizens are more engaged in the outcome as they learn about how their data affects lives in their own communities. Days, hours, even minutes of warning can save thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives. “Science is often something that seems distant for some people or disconnected from their lives. The app brings science more closely into the homes of these communities. It is an education as well as a collaboration tool,” adds McClain.

However, Jabbour notes, crowdsourced data might not be universally welcomed. “It’s really simple—some countries view this as a threat to sovereignty. They don’t want to relinquish information that would make them less competitive, or have them be seen in a bad light. At the same time, there is a recognition that some of the data that governments don’t relinquish isn’t being used to its full potential.” He cites the example of data on premature deaths related to exposure to air pollution. “The release of that data, or putting it in the hands of systems that can help countries, has actually motivated change. They can see how costly it is to have bad air quality.”

Open sourcing and crowdsourcing data can have the added benefit of providing technology companies, such as IBM, “with the data they need so they can help organizations like UN Environment and countries with the innovation and technologies to respond faster. They wish there was more open source data, beyond just spatial and geospatial.” Collecting data with a purpose, he says, is what will bring the most benefits to the most people.

McClain agrees. The key to groundtruthing, she says, is a community connected to their environment. “One element that is very beneficial, is that we get to the level of community. If they’re living in a region prone to landslides, or flash floods, they become better at understanding events that lead up to one.” The community becomes engaged not only with the solution to the problem, but what led up to the environmental crisis in the first place. “If we can capture some of this information ahead of time, and get to refocus satellites to capture an event, we can also get data to emergency responders—what villages were impacted or what roads they can no longer access, blown out in a flash flood.” That level of detail is what can save thousands of lives.

NASA is working in collaboration with aid agencies and other multinational partners to create networks of crowdsourced data. With partners on the ground, says McClain, “we can answer the important questions ‘what risks does a particular community experience and what information is needed in order to better inform decisions?’” McClain grew up in the climate-change vulnerable state of Florida in the United States and she has seen the effects of massive natural disasters on coastal populations. This informs her work, connecting science to people. “It’s not just creating the science—it is asking ‘Why is disaster risk important to understand? What are the impacts of particular disasters? What data is needed to reduce risk?’ If we can’t answer these questions, then communities cannot improve their actions to reduce their risk to disasters.”

For more information, please contact Jason Jabbour: [email protected]