Effects of Gulf oil spill tracked by university students
May 17, 2010
by Mark Ollig

They are part of “The Louisiana Bucket Brigade.”

A recently launched grass-roots effort began a few weeks ago by students at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.

Their new web site page is in response to the April 20 British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon drilling unit platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which claimed 11 lives and caused the current oil spill in the region.

The students are using a web-based virtual “Oil Spill Crisis Map,” which is updated in real-time with submitted testimonial reports using a program called “Ushahidi,” a Swahili word for “testimony.”

The Ushahidi program is a “crisis-mapping” software tool.

Ushahidi was created in 2008, when a Kenyan woman blogger, Ory Okollh, was covering the violence occurring during the country’s post-election.

In her blog, Okollh asked this question: “Any techies out there willing to do a mash-up of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”

Within two days, a couple “techies” responded to her and wrote an open-source user-friendly code, which became Ushahidi.

Ushahidi provides the means to map in real-time the information submitted by citizen reporters who send in their e-mails, Twitter tweet messages, blogs, mobile text messages, voice calls, and various Web source links.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade web site page uses Ushahidi and is asking residents living near the oil spill to send in reports of how the spill is directly affecting their lives and the communities they live in.

“By mobilizing information from affected communities, the immediate purpose is to contribute useful data. As time goes on, these reports will serve as a record of this tragedy, so that others may never have to bear witness again,” said Mariko Toyoji of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The information provided by these eyewitness citizen journalists/reporters is used to show the government and responders to the crisis the location of where help is most needed.

I recently visited the BP oil spill web page on The Louisiana Bucket Brigade site.

Here are the report categories under “BP Oil Spill” which contain submitted information:

• Oil Sheen.

• Oil Onshore

• Wildlife.

• Odor.

• Health Effects.

• Smoke.

• Birds.

• Marine Wildlife.

• Livelihood Threatened.

• Property damaged by oil.

• Solutions.

Selecting one of the categories displays a visual indication of the number of currently documented reports on a Google map of the Gulf of Mexico region near the southern US.

The reports are color-coded and contain hyper-linked text.

Clicking on the hyper-text message shows the location, date and time the report was made and if the report was verified. It also shows the complete detailed Incident Report Description provided by the person making the initial report.

I selected the Marine Wildlife category and 15 reports appeared on th,e Google map.

Clicking on one of the links opened a report from New Orleans which read: “Thin film of oil spotted, along with dead young crabs.”

The Oil Onshore category showed seven citizen reports. One report said: “Oil and dead jellyfish at New Harbor Island.”

Selecting The BP Oil Spill category, itself, shows all the reports on the map. One report I chose read: “Golf-ball sized balls of tar reach Dauphin Island.”

Another report, from May 7, said: “5 control burns on Friday.”

The data collected from the people contributing these reports is analyzed and plotted on the interactive Google map in near real-time.

Your Bits & Bytes columnist took a “snapshot” of the information from one of the reports and combined it into a single picture you can see at this shortened link I created: http://tinyurl.com/23odlzv.

By using this hashtag: “#BPspillmap,” Twitter users can participate in the online conversation concerning the oil spill and can also submit information to The Louisiana Bucket Brigade using this hashtag in their tweet messages.

You can follow and directly communicate with The Louisiana Bucket Brigade via their Twitter user name: “labucketbrigade.”

To see the real-time status reports on the updated Google map, visit The Louisiana Bucket Brigade at: http://oilspill.labucketbrigade.org.

The web site for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which provides regularly updated information on the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis, is: http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com.

The official web site of BP is located at: http://www.bp.com.