Citizen science in the Gulf of Mexico

If you live or vacation near the Gulf of Mexico, Talking Science has a nice suggestion: Join one of the citizen science projects that are helping researchers document the long-term environmental effects of last year's BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

I've listed a few of the citizen science programs below that have gotten people on the Gulf Coast involved in documenting the impacts of the oil that they observe.

Gulf Spill Oil Tracker: Anyone can submit an observation of oil or its impacts at the website, which is run by SkyTruth. Also, take a look at the maps of data collected.

Volunteer Field Observer Program: Mobile Baykeeper and the Alabama Coastal Foundation teamed up in May 2010 to train citizen scientists to monitor shoreline conditions along Alabama's coast and alert officials and partners of places where oil washed ashore and where wildlife was (and is) affected.

Mobile Gulf Observatory (MoGo): With this app developed at University of Massachusetts Amherst and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, citizen scientists have documented the impacts of oil with their iPhones to help guide restoration efforts.

OilReporter: This application, available for iPhone and Android, allows citizen scientists to report wildlife affected by oil through their phone. On the OilReporter website you can view a real-time reports map.

And, of course, there are also a whole suite of existing citizen science programs in which people report their observations of wildlife. These programs continued to gather reports from existing networks of citizen scientists after the oil began to leak. For example, More than 4000 birdwatchers with Audubon and eBird contributed almost 120 thousand observations about the health of birds in the Gulf Coast region over the past year. During the height of the oil spill, the eBird website added the ability to report oiled birds and participants filed nearly 900 bird lists with oiling information. Citizen scientists reporting observations through Project NOAH have reported on impacts of oil on Gulf Coast wildlife too. Project NOAH allows citizen scientists to upload photos and notes via iPhone and Android applications as well as through the website.

Submitterated by leharrist


  1. How exactly is this “science”? Is there any data collection methodology? Would any findings be considered robust? If newspapers reported on any findings would they be accused of the “bad science” BB loves to excoriate?

    1. Literally just starting doing reading on this for my thesis. Found a pretty readable journal article that might answer you questions:

      tl;dr: With some training, citizen scientists can do most of the data collection that a normal scientist can. While there are some questions about data quality, the data has been shown to be well within the range of validity (although there needs to be more studies on citizen science collection) and allows studies to be conducted over a large area/time.

  2. I’m never quite sure what to make of the phrase ‘citizen scientist’. It’s as if there are these ‘non-citizen scientists’. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to represent, either. I’d like it to be the same as ‘maker’ is to ‘engineer’ – someone who maybe lacks the tools, professional experience and training, but understands the core values of the subject and effectively works in that framework.

    I suspect, however, that it may be rather more like ‘citizen journalism’, which seems to neither understand nor respect journalism, but finds ‘journalist’ a convenient thing to pretend to be in order to campaign on an issue.

    Having said all that, from the description above, perhaps a better title would be ‘human data logger’. If the data collected feeds into good science, go them!

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