Citizen Science

Assessing the Power of CRS

Hurricane Katrina survivors arrive at the Houston Astrodome Red Cross Shelter after being evacuated from New Orleans. They were moved to the Astrodome after the Superdome became unsafe following the levee breaks in New Orleans. Community Remote Sensing tools are becoming part of the toolkit in responding to natural disasters. Credit: FEMA photo/Andrea Booher.

The Earth information needs of our society are enormous. In the past we have relied on government-sponsored satellites and observing systems as the foundations for gathering this data. But there is a rapid emergence of citizen science and social networks that yield an exciting new means to become better stewards of our planet.

Research Associate
Secure World Foundation

Imaging Notes has taken a lead role in gauging Community Remote Sensing, or CRS, a new field that combines remote sensing with citizen science, social networks, and crowd-sourcing to enhance the data obtained from traditional sources. It includes the collection, calibration, analysis, communication, or application of remotely sensed information by these community means.

Indeed, harnessing the power of CRS as a global vision for local action was highlighted at this year’s 30th International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS) gathering in July. At this conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, it became increasingly obvious that the data provided from people and sensors “on the ground” will be instrumental in seeing a much fuller picture for projects around the world, be they for disaster management or for measuring the possible impact of climate change. Still, there are challenging – sometimes thorny – issues ahead for increased acceptance and adoption of CRS.

Technology Tools

Following on the heels of the IGARSS gathering, Secure World Foundation held a special workshop in September in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security on CRS, citizen science and social networks. The day-long workshop included overviews by Scott Madry of the International Space University, who provided a tutorial on CRS. Stuart Gill of the World Bank outlined disaster risk management and CRS.

John Musinsky of Conservation International (CI) detailed the purpose of CI’s Fire Alert System, showcasing its ability to deliver near real-time satellite observations of fires to the government agencies, NGOs, and community organizations responsible for management of natural areas and fire suppression in countries where CI works. Musinsky noted that data are being used for active fire suppression, as educational tools for fire control and prevention in villages, for prioritizing resource management and outreach activities, for improving protected areas and plantation forest management, for assessing the extent of burnt areas, as an indicator of effective forest management, and for studying the influence of climate change on fire frequency. Furthermore, Fire Alerts have also helped to expose, as well as to stop, illegal logging operations.

A summary of the IGARSS meeting begins here, and a feature on the challenges of having so much data begins here.


The powerful role of hybrid barcamp/hackathon events was explained by Heather Blanchard, founder of CrisisCommons. She detailed her organization’s “CrisisCamp,” which brings together people and communities who innovate crisis response and global development through technology tools, expertise, and problem solving. For instance, the impact of CrisisCamp in shaping disaster relief efforts after the catastrophic Haiti earthquake brought home the utility of CRS.

CrisisCamp volunteers, Blanchard said, have created crisis response and learning events in over 10 countries with volunteers of all backgrounds who collaborate in an open environment to aggregate crisis data, develop prototype tools, and train people on how to use technology

Similar in message, Carolyn Lukensmeyer of AmericaSpeaks underscored the engagement of citizens in the public decisions that impact their lives. AmericaSpeaks has developed and facilitated deliberative methods, partnering with regional planning groups; local, state and national government bodies; and national and international organizations. Issues tackled by AmericaSpeaks have ranged from the redevelopment of ground zero in New York following the horrific terrorist attacks to rebuilding New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. See Figure 1.

Distributed Democracy

The use of the Internet and social media technologies was discussed by Tina Nabatchi of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Tapping these communication advances can promote distributed democracy and create digital neighborhoods, she added, dubbing it “Participation 2.0.” It’s the view of Nabatchi that the current thrust of the White House Open Government Directive has encouraged federal agencies to be more transparent, collaborative, and participatory…and many states are following suit. However, it is at the local level where citizens and government generally have the most direct interactions. That being said, it is likely that more innovation and more use of Participation 2.0 technologies can be expected in years to come.

A number of challenges with managing CRS data are emerging, as pointed out by Raja Rajasekar of the School of Information and Library Sciences at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With social networking tools and crowd-sourcing technologies, Rajasekar emphasized that the data collected by the CRS systems can grow exponentially, and that community-driven data collection can produce large amounts of environmental data (such as rainfall, temperature, humidity, water shed level, crop yields, etc.), including sensor-based point measurements, textual data capturing information in free form, photographic images and video. Therefore, one of the challenges of the CRS community is the problem of how to manage such data in a coherent manner such that it can enable new science and aid decision making.

Rajasekar advised that the CRS system should deploy a cyber-infrastructure – CRS-CI – that is scalable and can support organic growth to meet the needs of an expanding CRS community. Several challenges need to be addressed, he added, such as scalable federated data grid architecture, semantics-enabled discovery and access, user-friendly workflow systems for analysis and synthesis, and social consensus on collection properties. He proposed that the CRS system needs to be based on a cyber infrastructure that is robust and extensible and that can meet the multiple challenges posed by the diverse data gathering and usage models.

Cautionary Flag

Given the birth of Google Earth in 2005, in addition to other web mapping services, there has been an explosion of interest in spatial data and the power of community remote sensing. Unfortunately, the legal and policy communities have not kept pace with the rapid adaptation of this technology for commercial and societal purposes. That cautionary flag was waved by Kevin Pomfret, Executive Director of the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy (and member of the Imaging Notes Editorial Board), who said that a wide range of issues is associated with the collection, distribution and use of spatial data, and that the law with respect to spatial data is often confusing and uncertain.

These issues – which include privacy, liability, intellectual property rights and national security – become even more complex when associated with community remote sensing. This uncertainty already impacts the cost and ease of collecting and sharing spatial data for both governmental and commercial entities. In addition, unless an informed and cohesive legal and policy framework is developed for spatial data, there is a growing risk that community remote sensing will ultimately be under-utilized. Pomfret concluded that “Legal and policy issues need to be addressed in order to maximize success.”

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