Citizen Science in Crisis Situations


In a recent post, Caren Cooper focused on scientist-driven citizen science. This perspective offers a framework for many citizen science projects. Citizens participate in established research agendas to assist scientists collect, aggregate, and/or analyze large data sets. But citizen science can also be participant-driven.

My research concerns participant-driven responses to crisis situations, as they are facilitated by mobile and web technologies. The increased ubiquity of sophisticated technologies such as GPS-enabled mobile phones, web-based sharing and aggregation tools for data, and social networking platforms such as Twitter have all changed the ways in which crisis information is communicated. I’m interested in how citizens are able to participate in, as well as initiate, scientific research given the dramatic changes we have seen to the distribution of scientific knowledge, expertise, and tools.

The distinction between scientist-driven and participant-driven citizen science is a bit of an oversimplification. When scientists initiate research projects in response to crises they might also act as community organizers, in addition to researchers. Their work might contribute both to their own research agenda as well as a better understanding of community impacts and strategic responses.

Whether professional scientists or citizen scientists drive the response, there has been a good deal of crisis monitoring and response through citizen science. Perhaps the most memorable in 2012 were responses to hurricanes. When Hurricane Isaac made landfall, there were a number of citizen science projects monitoring the storm. A few months later when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Caribbean before moving through the mid-Atlantic up the coast of the United States and Canada, citizen scientists were ready to take measurements, make observations, and collect samples. Here are a few examples of the projects responding to Sandy.

One project, from, asked volunteers to collect and send water samples from across the Eastern coast during the hurricane. Another project, Send Us Your Dirt from Sandy (SUDS), asked volunteers to send samples of sediment in flooded areas. Earth science researchers were not the only ones interested in studying the impact of this massive and devastating hurricane. Yet another Sandy-related project sought to better understand the impact on traffic by mapping post-Sandy traffic patterns.

For a more expansive look at how citizens put technology to use in response to Sandy, head over to the Wilson Center’s Commons Lab discussion of Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping. Even more information, including an estimate of over 50 crowd-sourced projects relating to Sandy, check out the HurricaneHackers blog post about data crowdsourcing.

In addition to disasters, citizen scientists respond to industry pollution, energy development and extraction, and other environmental concerns or hazards with crisis monitoring. There are the crisis that rivers face and the many monitoring efforts undertaken to respond to this serious need. Both 2011, and again in 2012, fracking became a point of contention and citizen scientists, such are those working with FrackTrack, who have begun monitoring efforts for both scientific interests and policy-based interest. You can read more about these efforts and their importance from Andrew Revkin over at the NY Times DotEarth blog.

Citizen science in response to crisis situations is fascinating because of its variety and often innovative approaches. There are the efforts of citizens in the impacted communities and the efforts professional research scientists. Efforts of both the scientist-driven and participant-driven citizen science serve to develop better responses to these events as well as better strategies to prevent similar destruction. In all of these examples, and from all of these orientations, citizen science comes as a banner to articulate the important monitoring and research work.

As we move toward increased public participation in crisis-based scientific research, there are a number of questions to raise and address. Beginning with questions about the relationship between the role of citizen as scientist and as concerned member of a community to questions about liability and policies governing ad-hoc citizen science responses. More questions might be asked about data quality or even honesty in reporting. Crisis response is a domain of citizen science pregnant with questions for scientists, citizens, and social researchers.


Photo courtesy of NCDOTcommunications on Flickr.

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4 Responses to Citizen Science in Crisis Situations

  1. Pingback: Reporte Ciencia UANL » Hackerspaces and Hacking Science

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  3. gmoke says:

    The second panel of the Friday, December 21, 2012 meeting of the NE Electricity Restructuring Roundtable in Boston, MA was on “Bracing for Storms in NE” with William Quinlan, Senior VP of Emergency Preparedness, Northeast Utilities, and Marcy Reed, President of National Grid (MA), among others. One of the things they talked about was getting quick information on downed lines and places which have lost power.

    After the meeting, I asked Mr Quinlan if he knew about crisis mapping and tools like Ushahidi. He did not, wrote down the concepts, and was very interested in these ideas. Seems to me that there is a great opportunity here to link the crisis mapping community with electrical utilities so that they can improve their emergency procedures before the next disastrous event. You can see the Roundtable presentation at

    Since then, I’ve contacted Joi Ito of Safecast and MIT Media Lab, Ethan Zuckerman of the Center for Civic Media, Caitria O’Neill of which has developed a preparedness platform for cities and towns and has been working on Hurricane Sandy relief and, InSTEDD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to innovating new responses to diseases, disasters, and emergencies. Ethan Zuckerman informed me he has passed this idea to his friends at Ushahidi.

    Would be good if the utilities could make use of some of the open source tools that have been built in response to disaster over the last few years.

    • These are really interesting connections, gmoke. I’m in the SE and it would seem a similar platform would be useful. While there are the major storms such as Sandy to consider, there are also regular storms that impact utilities. In either case, the overlap you’re suggesting seems to be very promising.

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