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Crowdsourcing geology

08.02.2013
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Science seems to be increasingly turning to the cloud in their pursuit of insight and enlightenment.  The appeal is clear.  The crowd typically has a much wider and more varied range of skills than is normal in a particular field, and this variety can often bring fresh insight.

The latest branch of science to reach out to the crowd is earth science.  The US Geological Survey is conducting a range of citizen science projects where they ask people to report what’s happening in their part of the world.  So if you saw a landslide or felt the earthquake they want to know.

This information is then collated and aggregated so that people can easily make use of the information people submit to the site.

A prime example of this is Did You Feel It?, an online crowdsourcing system developed by the USGS that allows people to submit first hand accounts of earthquakes in their area.  It was launched in 1997 and has thus far received nearly 3 million submissions.

The site allows users both to submit their own experience, but also to find out if they have anything in common with other people in the same area.  More importantly, USGS can aggregate the results according to either city or zip code to document the reported quake intensity.  This data then augments official data from sensors and the output is incorporated into ShakeMaps for the emergency services to use.

Monitoring Twitter

Of course, not every country in the world has such advanced measuring devices, so applying social monitoring and crowdsourcing this behaviour can literally be a life saver.  The USGS Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED) program monitors Twitter for large numbers of tweets mentioning earthquakes or its foreign equivalents.  These mentions can often provide earthquake identification in regions with sparse monitoring.

Many of these trends were highlighted in a recent report penned in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  The report also highlights some success stories from this approach, such as the 2008 earthquake in China that was first reported by citizens rather than official sources.  Likewise, around 150,000 people used DFYI to document the impact of an earthquake in Virginia in 2011.

Gamifying the process

They have also started to add gamification elements to the process.  Citizen volunteers are encouraged to add contributions to The National Map (TNM), which is a web-based geospatial visualisation platform.  When citizens add content to the map they earn points for each data point, and eventually this will earn them a range of badges.

USGS are undoubtedly firm fans of crowdsourcing, as much of their work would simply not be possible without the significant contributions made by members of the public.  It’s another nice example of how organisations can involve stakeholders in the work they do, and the gains that can be made as a result.

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