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Feature - Volunteer computing helps rescue oiled Gulf Coast wildlife

Feature - Volunteer computing helps rescue oiled Gulf Coast wildlife

Map indicating position fo Deepwater Horizon oil spill as of June 8, and globally important bird areas considered most at risk. Image courtesy American Bird Conservancy. Click on image to enlarge.

iPhone users who come upon oiled birds and other wildlife in the Gulf Coast region can immediately transmit the location and a photo to animal rescue networks using a free new iPhone application called MoGO (Mobile Gulf Observatory). It was developed by four University of Massachusetts-Amherst researchers to make it easier for the public to help save wildlife exposed to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

With support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the UMass-Amherst researchers hope the MoGO app will draw on the large network of "citizen scientists" who are as heartbroken as they are to witness the disaster for marine life, and who are actively looking for ways to help save wildlife along the 14,000 miles of northern Gulf coastline. (For more on citizen science, see our previous iSGTW stories 'The age of citizen cyberspace' and 'Volunteering for a better world.')

Although rescue networks are in place and busy saving stranded wildlife, the task is enormous and trained staff too few. They just don't have the people-power to cover all the territory from Louisiana to Florida. With over 400 wildlife species and 35 national wildlife refuges at risk, the Gulf is in crisis from the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

"That's where citizen science comes in," says UMass-Amherst wildlife biologist Curt Griffin. As he explains, "The new app allows anyone who finds an oiled animal to be linked automatically by the phone to the Wildlife Hotline and also to contribute photos of the stranded animal and its GPS location coordinates to a database here on campus."

Each report will alert wildlife stranding networks to deploy experts to rescue live animals for clean-up and medical treatment. Photos of oiled wildlife plus the GPS location will also be uploaded to MoGO's comprehensive database for review by wildlife and fisheries experts using a web browser. Users are also encouraged to upload their photos of dead marine and coastal wildlife, tar balls on beaches, oil slicks on water and oiled coastal habitats to the MoGO database.

The idea for the new application came to Charlie Schweik, associate director of the National Center for Digital Government, as he listened to yet another depressing story about the Gulf oil spill. Already working on invasive species mapping with computer scientist Deepak Ganesan, an expert in mobile phone and sensor systems, Schweik thought that experience might prove useful for inventorying damage in the Gulf. Smartphones such as the iPhone have several sensors including camera, GPS, audio and video, which can provide valuable data for such an application.

Schweik also turned to Griffin and Andy Danylchuk, a fisheries ecologist, his colleagues in the university's natural resources conservation department, to connect to the wildlife and fisheries community. Griffin and Danylchuk agreed that a mobile phone app in the hands of an army of "citizen scientists" would enhance recovery efforts by wildlife stranding networks. It could also increase the efficiency of state and federal efforts to monitor, assess and respond to the damage caused by the spill and engage the public to partner with natural resources agencies and researchers.

As Danylchuk points out, "The MoGO public database will help guide restoration efforts of vital coastal and marine habitats, and be used by scientists world-wide to assess the ecological impacts of the spill on the Gulf. The public database also allows scientists outside the Gulf region to participate in the assessment."

The approach takes advantage of "mobile crowdsourcing," that is, the power of personal mobile devices to provide thousands of eyes and ears on the ground. Ganesan's research group has designed a software framework called "mCrowd" - see pdf of abstract - which simplifies the usual weeks- to months-long process of developing a new mobile crowdsourcing app. "It provides easy-to-use templates that can be tailored to a new application," Ganesan explains. His mCrowd technology allowed the team to create the MoGO app and infrastructure in a little more than a week.

Whether the project succeeds now rests on how well the word gets out to the public in the Gulf region, the researchers note. "Any person, on land or at sea, wishing to use the free app for their iPhone can go to the website for more information on how to get it on their iPhone," Schweik says.

-Dan Drollette, iSGTW. For more about volunteer computing, see the Citizen Cyberscience Center.

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