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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Citizen data can change the world

August 1st, 2014 by Susan Smith

Tierney O’Dea Booker, spatial journalist in Support of Citizen Science, with USC Spatial Sciences Institute, gave a fascinating presentation at Esri UC 2014 in San Diego on how citizens can become involved in science, and contribute to data on sensitive projects. Her talk was entitled “Drones, Pigs, Maps and Oil.” Before coming to USC Spatial Sciences Institute, Booker was with NBC working with anchorman Tom Brokaw, and worked with Medic Mobile developing health technology for mobile phones.


“The most effective way to get involved in science is to do science,” said Booker. She got interested in data journalism while with Medic Mobile, and in spatial data through Ushahidi.

One of the most effective uses of citizen data came about with the oil fire aboard the Horizon. Citizens and grass roots mappers were very active with the oil fire, and this involved friendly people with a complete grassroots mapping kit. “This is not a scary drone, just balloons and kites that provided amazing aerial imagery of the oil spill,” said Booker. “They stitched it together and covered much of the area affected by the spill. They wanted to protect their community. Then they used Ushahidi to create maps online for people to see. The media couldn’t do this themselves, yet were able to benefit from it.”

View of fracking landscape from the air

View of fracking landscape from the air

Booker likes to take photos from planes, so she has tracked changes in landscape over the southwest over the years. Fracking requires lots of water, and she saw from the plane remote areas of Texas turning the roads to potholed areas.

“Fracking is polarized, reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” she said. “Does it have to be one of the dirtiest, cheapest ways to involve taxpayers money?”

Scientifically, they began to look at drones, aerial imagery, and telemetric data. “They are building drones for specific GIS apps, and you can get a robust drone with devices on it for $8,000,” said Booker. This drone technology that used to be cost prohibitive and used only by the military is now readily available now and can be ordered off Amazon.

The photo that sunk the Columbia Packing Company

The photo that sunk the Columbia Packing Company

In December, 2011, a model airplane hobbyist discovered that the Columbia Packing Company was dumping pig blood into the river. This photo that he took shut the factory down, which had 15 felony charges files against it.

Booker said that even hobby drones could be made illegal in Texas. Some people in Texas did not like the fact that a common citizen brought down a big company. They also make the case that common citizens with access to drones can be spying on people in their backyards. 94% of the land in Texas is private land, and most oil and water issues are happening on private land.


Meanwhile, the FAA is trying to figuring out how to regulate drones.

The photo shows results from 2013. Oil spills are not an uncommon event. Texas legislature is trying to regulate the photography from UAVs. Many things you can see on private land would be of public interest.

“Corporations don’t want people uncovering their operations,” Booker pointed out. “If you work for a big network you can still use drones, if you’re looking for fracking and intending to surveil, or if you accidentally see a crime it is not admissible evidence in court.”

The group, Southwest by Southwest, addresses how we protect people’s right to practice science. Perhaps some uniform standards can be developed for using UAS that can be demonstrated and enforced.

With drones, FAA pilots don’t want to lose their “piece of the pie,” said Booker. “One thing they say now is you need to have a commercial airline pilot’s license in order to fly a drone. If they just had safety issues outlined, it would be more effective than just adding on things people can’t do.”

For more on citizen science, visit

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Categories: Big Data, crowd source, drones, Esri, Esri UC 2014, field GIS, geocoding, geospatial, GIS, mapping, mobile, satellite imagery, sensors, spatial data

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