Virginia Tech Professor Wants to Enlist 'Citizen Scientists'

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.

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.

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.

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