Researcher seeks to create 'citizen scientists' to help in response to environmental disasters

September 22, 2010

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $65,000 grant to a newly hired Virginia Tech College of Engineering assistant professor who wants to put the task of data collection during a catastrophe such as the recent Gulf Coast oil spill into the hands of ordinary citizens.

Jules White, with the Bradley Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, seeks to create a massive data collection system that would rely on information captured by "citizen scientists" who would use devices such as smart phones to take photographic evidence from the site of disaster areas. Once collected at a single source, scientists and other responders could quickly sift through data, and decide how best to react.

"Traditional applications for monitoring disasters have relied on specialized, tightly-coupled, and expensive hardware and software platforms to capture, aggregate and disseminate information on affected areas," White wrote in his grant abstract. "We lack science and technology for rapid and dependable integration of computing and communication technology into natural and engineered physical systems, cyber-physical systems."

In the case of the Gulf Coast oil spill, citizens could photograph or record images such as fish or birds, or oil-blackened grasslands, and send the data to the collection center. Additional sensors - those that gauge temperature, for instance - on some phones could further help responders. Existing cell phone carrier networks would operate as the delivery system. "Everyday people can record ecological impacts that they see and send along that data for scientist to use," White added.

The two-year grant was awarded under the National Science Foundation's RAPID Response Research program, which funds scientific projects with strong issues of timeliness. It is the second such grant related to the Gulf spill to be awarded to the College of Engineering this summer. In July, the foundation awarded a $60,000 grant to two faculty members in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to study how the shape of crude oil remnants could determine how fast natural microbes break them down. < http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2010/08/083010-engineering-gulfcoastresearch.html>

White also points to spring flooding in Nashville, Tenn., recent flooding in Pakistan, and the January earthquake in Haiti as other dire examples in which data collected and sent by ordinary citizens could help rescue and response coordinators react more quickly and efficiently. Citizens also could help track damage to cell phone towers or electric grids in some cases, White said.

White has a personal stake in two of his examples. He recently lived in Nashville and is a native of Fairhope, Ala., a town along the Gulf Coast. He spent countless hours as a child swimming and playing in the waters now affected by the oil spill. "Being from Mobile absolutely made me want to take a special interest in this," White said. "I was in Nashville with the flooding earlier this year. I saw the flooding, and was interested in how I could help."

The system would be easy enough for school-age children to use. White is teaming with the private school Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala., on early collection efforts of affected biological life along the Gulf Coast. White is collaborating with the computer science departments at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Nashville's Vanderbilt University on the grant.

White earned his bachelor's degree from Brown University in 2001, and his master' s in 2006 and doctoral degree in 2008, both from Vanderbilt University, all in computer science. Before joining the Virginia Tech faculty in August, he was a research assistant professor at the Institute for Software Integrated Systems at Vanderbilt.
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Virginia Tech

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