The rise of community remote sensing

by Erin Wayman
Thursday, January 5, 2012

If you ask someone involved in community remote sensing to define the emerging field, the most likely response will be a chuckle followed by “That’s a hard question to answer…”

Bill Gail, a director at Microsoft’s Startup Business Group in Boulder, Colo., coined the term, and he says he likes to keep the definition “nebulous” as the field takes shape. At its core, the movement is about remote sensing — collecting data from afar. Remote sensing “has revolutionized science and Earth monitoring,” Gail says. Airplanes, satellites, space probes and the like have helped scientists gather information on long-term, global scales, but these tools have limitations: They fail to capture what’s happening at the local level, he says.

That’s where the “community” can help. Rather than relying on a centralized system, such as a government agency, networks of individuals can remotely gather and analyze data locally. The rise of digital and mobile technologies — like digital cameras and smartphones equipped with GPS and Internet access — has made community remote sensing possible because the technologies allow anyone, anywhere to relay information about the world around them. Researchers are now experimenting with different ways to tap into this army of remote sensors to collect data on everything from weather to seismic activity to ecology.

Community remote sensing sounds a lot like citizen science, in which nonscientists collect observations and measurements for a study, and it is one aspect of the field, Gail says. Citizen science projects range from the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which asks volunteers to census local birds, to the web-based Galaxy Zoo project, which asks amateur space enthusiasts to classify images of galaxies.

But community remote sensing goes beyond citizen science. In some instances, people act as remote sensors without even knowing it. Researchers are beginning to turn to social networking to quickly gather data, not only on people’s opinions but on local events. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), for instance, is using people’s earthquake-related tweets to help detect and report earthquakes.

The USGS' use of Twitter also highlights another characteristic of community remote sensing: It’s an applied science. Many community remote sensing projects are looking to solve societal problems, rather than conduct research to further scientific knowledge, Gail says. To that end, the field also involves community analysis of data, often by volunteer professionals. For example, GISCorps is a network of GIS experts who volunteer their time to aid humanitarian efforts. In 2008, the group studied Google Earth images of Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis, looking for infrastructure destroyed in the storm. In the end, 31 GISCorps members from around the world spent more than 1,300 hours working on the project, identifying more than 60,000 buildings, bridges and roads.

Part of the reason it’s so hard to characterize community remote sensing is because the field is so new. And because it’s new, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed, such as maintaining the quality of data that are being collected and protecting the privacy of the people who are transmitting information. To tackle these issues, Gail says he is working to bring together researchers with experience in the field to brainstorm and exchange ideas. He co-chaired a session on community remote sensing at the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Denver, Colo., last November. He’s also talking with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop an X Prize-like program to spur the field’s growth.

To really understand what community remote sensing is all about, it’s best to consider some of the projects that fall under its banner. Here’s a look at some ongoing community remote sensing efforts.

Name: Vehicle Data Translator Organization: Research Applications Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Website:

The United States has thousands of weather stations, but it could have millions more by turning the nation’s cars and trucks into mobile weather-tracking machines. Modern cars are equipped with a variety of sensors that monitor a car’s performance and check environmental conditions such as temperature and atmospheric pressure, says Sheldon Drobot, scientific program manager at NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. Drobot and colleagues are studying how that information could be used to provide better information on driving conditions and possibly even improve weather forecasts.

NCAR is working with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on an initiative to create a system in which vehicles can wirelessly transmit data to a central network. NCAR’s role is to build a Vehicle Data Translator (VDT) that takes the data collected from the network and determines what the driving conditions are for different segments of a road or highway, creating a weather report that could be disseminated to local radio and TV stations, Drobot says.

For the past two years, NCAR has worked at a U.S. DOT test site in Detroit, Mich., to analyze how information recorded by cars — such as the use of windshield wipers, wheel slippage that triggers Antilock Brake Systems and the angle of steering wheels (which people often adjust when roads are icy) — corresponds to various weather conditions. This year, the lab is teaming with state DOTs in Minnesota and Nevada to conduct similar tests on snowplows and trucks, and is working with the University of Oklahoma to examine real-world passenger vehicles. By early 2012, Drobot says, the team should be done developing and testing the VDT. NCAR is also hoping to see if adding data from these mobile weather stations improves weather forecasts.

In 2013, Drobot says, the U.S. DOT will decide how to regulate the manufacture and use of wireless data transmission technologies. Privacy concerns are an issue, but can be addressed in several ways. For example, the VDT can lump several cars into one data point, thereby making cars anonymous, and drivers could be given the option of turning off transmitters, he says. The benefits of mobile weather stations would outweigh any potential negatives, Drobot adds. More than 7,000 people die each year in driving fatalities related to weather. “We have a lot of weather stations,” he says, “but they don’t provide road weather conditions on the scale we need.”

Name: Air Twitter Organization: Federation of Earth Science Information Partners Website:, on Twitter @ESIPAQWG

Last year, as Twitter was buzzing about the ash fallout from the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano, scientists were listening in: Air Twitter surveys a range of social media to identify air quality events and public concerns.

Air Twitter was developed by Erin Robinson of the Foundation for Earth Science, part of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners. Air Twitter is designed to search for air quality-related keywords such as smoke, dust and fire through subscriptions on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr (a photo-sharing website) and Delicious (a bookmarking website), says Robinson, who began the project in 2009 while a graduate student at Washington University in Missouri. Next, she says, all of the information is aggregated and filtered to remove the erroneous stuff (like a tweet about “quality Nike Air basketball shoes”). Finally, the relevant information is tweeted @ESIPAQWG with #airquality. Robinson also maintains a wiki¬≠page that keeps track of all the social media as well as scientific data like satellite images related to a particular air quality event.

The project’s first success came in August 2009, when it identified the Los Angeles wildfires before scientific data were available to confirm the event. Since then, Robinson says, Air Twitter has been able to identify other events up to 48 hours before they are officially recognized. Therefore, Air Twitter can “give scientists a heads up” on things to look for, she says. Furthermore, scanning social media can help scientists determine what people want to know and are concerned about. “We were blown away that people were talking about air quality so much,” Robinson says. But Air Twitter doesn’t have to be about just air quality, she adds. The same sort of system could be designed for a variety of natural events, such as floods.

Name: What’s Invasive! Organization: Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS), University of California at Los Angeles Website:

Smokey the Bear’s mantra “Only you can prevent forest fires” is now applicable to invasive species. The What’s Invasive! app lets anyone with an iPhone or Android phone help scientists prevent the spread of invasive species.

Early detection is key when it comes to combating invasive species that threaten the health of native species. But that can be challenging if you’re the National Park Service and responsible for huge tracts of land. Mapping the location of invasive species in any one park could take years to complete, and the end result is often a map that’s already outdated, says Eric Graham, staff ecologist and associate development engineer at CENS.

What’s Invasive! remedies that problem. Electrical engineering and computer science graduate students at CENS teamed with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the University of Georgia’s Early Detection & Distribution Mapping System to develop the app. When you open the app, it automatically downloads a list of invasive species for one of 23 parks that’s closest to your location. The list includes both pictures and descriptions of the plants and animals on the list. If you see one of the invasive species, you take a picture of it with your phone, which provides a time-stamp and geo-tagged location of the image. That information is then sent to a database that keeps track of all of the invasive species sightings. The data as well as the app’s source code are freely available for anyone to download, Graham says. And anyone can submit a list of invasive species for a park that’s not already available on the app.

To ensure data quality, users must go online and verify that a photo they’ve uploaded is indeed a picture of an invasive species. And to avoid misidentifications, the lists are limited to invasives that look distinct from native species, Graham says. Moving forward, more interactive features will be added to the app, including real-time mapping functions and social networking features that will allow users to chat with other invasive species mappers. “We’re trying to add features to spur people to open the app more frequently,” he says, which will help keep the What’s Invasive! database up-to-date.

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