Citizen-gathered data: can we get past mistrust and forge partnerships?

Anne Rolfes, Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, is the guest blogger today. Her organization gathered data from citizens regarding their observations during the BP Oil Spill and then plotted that information on the interactive Ushahidi mapping platform. She is responding to the earlier posting on this blog, “Did Crowdsourcing Work for the BP Spill: One Local Official Says No“,  in which one local official involved in the response called the data unreliable.

I would like to make one observation before you read about her frustrations. The military has a saying: You fight like you train. Improvising during the heat of battle is not the norm, nor is it recommended. In fact, I have heard first-hand accounts of military units receiving new, unrequested technology in the field and being completely resistant to its deployment. (This does contrast, however, with their reaction to technology that they actually requested.) Why? Not only had they not received training (expect on-site), but the technology hadn’t been integrated into their “common operating picture.” Even though there were tangible, demonstrated benefits, it still went against their institutional culture to try to execute its deployment. Therefore, it should be understood that it is difficult at best to institute new technologies and practices during the execution phase of a disaster. In order for any new technology to be accepted, it should be deployed during the planning, training and exercise phases, and in that order.  In her piece, Ms Rolfes comments on broader problems of mistrust, however, which are somewhat separate issues.

Guest Post by: Anne Rolfes, Louisana Bucket Brigade, Oil Spill Crisis Map

In the early days of the BP oil spill I kept my cell phone handy, watching for return calls from essential partners in the crisis. Chief among those numbers were government contacts – the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and technology officers from various branches of the bureaucracy. We were launching the region’s first Crisis Map. After a decade of experience responding to oil spill disasters, we had something to offer the government response community. We wanted to partner on the map, help the government collect information from citizens that could guide the response. Despite preliminary conversations with a variety of agencies who voiced interest, no calls for partnership came from the government. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=Bp+oil+spill&iid=9398127″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9398127/economic-and-environmental/economic-and-environmental.jpg?size=500&imageId=9398127″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]

Government officials seem to have viewed the map. That’s what we hear, informally, from some workers on the ground.  The best example of high level engagement is EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. She posted her excitement about Ushahidi on her Facebook page. But these views appear to have been skin deep, with no serious engagement of the technology and how it might work for government.

Part of the problem is an age old problem in disaster response: a crisis is no time to introduce a new tool. A good example is our experience here in Louisiana with oil refinery accidents. In early September of this year ExxonMobil’s Chalmette Refining dumped 19 tons of catalyst on the community in St. Bernard Parish. Despite outreach after the accident encouraging people to report on the Chemical Accidents Map, no reports were filed. When another accident happened in that same community on October 4th, however, two reports were filed on the map. Discussions with the woman who made one of the reports revealed that she had prior knowledge of the map. She did not learn about it in the midst of the crisis.

But the chaos of crisis is not the only explanation for government agencies’ failure to harness the power of the BP Crisis Map. An earlier post on this blog detailed a Florida response chief’s distrust of reports from ordinary citizens. And in Louisiana, communities adjacent to oil refineries and chemical plants have long experienced mistrust from the local emergency planning commissions. This distrust exists despite the fact that the residents are on the front line of the facilities’ explosions and fires.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Louisiana+oil+refinery&iid=1353132″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/1353132/louisiana-oil-industry/louisiana-oil-industry.jpg?size=500&imageId=1353132″ width=”380″ height=”192″ /]St. Bernard Parish, where Chalmette Refining is located, is a good example. Two citizen groups monitor the local refineries, and were understandably alarmed when the refinery’s 19 ton catalyst spill took place. The Material Safety Data Sheet classified the catalyst as hazardous, and instructs that footwear that comes into contact with catalyst be decontaminated or even thrown away before re use.[i]

No such instruction was given to the local community. Images on TV showed children playing in the catalyst.

Instead, parish Fire Chief brushed off community concerns, acknowledging potential harm but ultimately taking no action – including emergency response procedures – to advise the community on how to proceed. “It looked like someone just took and dusted the neighborhood with confectioner’s sugar,” he [the chief] said.”[ii] The community has long been concerned about the Fire Chief’s false assurances of safety after serious refinery accidents. As of this writing, the Fire Chief has not responded to a phone call and two e-mails requesting a meeting to review emergency response procedures.

This story matters because it crystallizes the portrait that some branches of bureaucracy have of citizens: at best people who are tangential to an emergency, at worst unreliable characters not to be trusted. But in fact, as those who live closest to petrochemical accidents or the BP oil spill (or a hurricane or a tropical storm), community members are all too often the epicenter of emergencies. First responders and government agencies should take advantage of this position and see citizens as partners.

In this they could take a lesson from community policing which incorporates partnerships with communities. Another example is Crime Stoppers. The police department – also a government institution – is willing to accept a certain amount of unreliable noise in the reporting because it sees the value of the reports that actually lead to the arrest and capture of suspects.

Emergency responders, the Coast Guard and military – entities involved in disaster response – should adopt a similar attitude toward community information. It is something valuable to be used, not unreliable data to be discarded. In the case of our Oil Spill Crisis Map, 66% of our 2,872 reports have been verified. A woman with a chronic cough since the oil spill, oil in a fragile area, dispersant on beaches – all of this is information is news that responders can use. If only they will listen.


[i] Kirkham, Chris, Times Picayune, September 7, 2010, “Louisiana DEQ Investigating Release of White Powder,” http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2010/09/louisiana_deq_investigating_re.html

[ii] Sparacello, Mary, Times Picayune, September 6, 2010.

One response to “Citizen-gathered data: can we get past mistrust and forge partnerships?

  1. The crisis maps have been incredibly important for creating a mechanism for tracking ground truth that goes much deeper than any existing govt data source. Please pass your exerience and lessons learned to the President’s Oil Spill Commission, so at least they get on the record (for the next time!).

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