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Professors Griffin, Schweik and Danylchuk Create Mobile ‘App’ to Aid in Gulf Crisis

Posted: June 17th, 2010

UMass-created 'app' takes aim at oil
by Kristin Palpini – GazetteNET

AMHERST – University of Massachusetts professors hope a new smartphone application they've created will give regular people the tools to help clean up the oil-soaked Gulf coast.

Relying on everyday technology, the app known as MoGo, which is short for Mobile Gulf Observatory, allows people to photograph wildlife in need of help and summon experts to its precise location.

"I hope this goes viral. We need as many people to know about it as possible," said Curt Griffin, a UMass natural resources and conservation professor and one of the app's creators. "By downloading (MoGo), people can become citizen scientists helping to document the affect of the oil and rescue animals."

In response to the ongoing BP oil leak miles off the Gulf Coast, four UMass computer and natural environment scientists teamed up to create and launch the free iPhone application.

This is how it works: iPhone users who come across an oiled bird or other wildlife in the Gulf Coast region can use the MoGo app to snap a picture of the animal, upload the photo as well as its GPS coordinates to a database, and link automatically to the Wildlife Hotline, a call center established by Unified Command that dispatches wildlife stranding networks to capture and clean the animals.

Unified Command links organizations responding to the spill and provides a place for those organizations to make decisions and enact cleanup and claims. Organizations involved include BP, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Griffin said that with 14,000 miles of coast line across five states impacted by the oil leak, volunteers will be needed to help document, communicate and mediate the fallout.

MoGo was launched this week, but within a month, Griffin said the UMass team plans to launch a MoGo app that could be used by smartphones other than the iPhone. The app and its future incarnations can be downloaded at the scientists' website www.savegulfwildlife.org.

"You can't help but look at the news and be so sad and heartbroken to see the images of these struggling animals," Griffin said. "We wanted to do something, even way up here in Massachusetts, something to contribute, to help the cause."

Since a BP oil rig malfunctioned leading to several underwater well leaks on April 20, 12,000-19,000 barrels (504,000-798,000 gallons) of oil have poured into the Gulf per day, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The fuel first reached American shores on May 6. Since washing up on the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast, the oil plume has impacted the shores of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

As of Wednesday, 1,910 affected birds, sea turtles, mammals, and reptiles have been taken in by wildlife cleanup or "stranding" networks. Of the animals 733 were alive and for the most part visibly oiled; 1,177 were dead, according to data provided by Unified Command.

Thus far 45 animals have been cleaned and released, according to Unified Command which collects data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Updated information on animal rescue and other leak data is available at Unified Command's website, www.deephorizonresponse.com.

More animals have not been released yet because the cleaning process can take days, said Doug Zimmer, external affairs liaison with Unified Command for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. In addition to removing oil, veterinarians take blood samples to see whether animals have ingested oil, a condition that can be deadly if not treated with vitamins and antibiotics.

Zimmer said stranding crews respond and recover about 80-87 percent of the animals reported to the hotline.

"The reason it's not higher is that animals move," Zimmer said. "We can't save them all, we try, but we can't save them all."

However, the more eyes on the ground – in this case the more smart phones summoning help – the better for animal's chance of survival, he said. The hotline now receives about 40-100 calls per day, with the higher volume of calls coming in on the weekend and when the weather is pleasant.

"It's always useful to get more reports," said Zimmer who had not seen the UMass app. "It helps us get going, it helps us target our resources better than just doing sector searches."

Although MoGo is being used in the South, it was originally designed to address a local animal issue: an infestation of the invasive Asian longhorn beetle around Worcester.

To address this issue, Deepak Ganesan, a UMass computer scientist, was building a crowdsourcing mobile platform where people would be able to take a picture of the beetle, send it to a database and notify the authorities. Crowdsourcing involves using online contributions from a wide number of people to cover an event, provide information on a topic or otherwise solve a problem.

While listening to a report about oil-soaked wildlife along the Gulf, Charlie Schweik, associate director of the UMass National Center for Digital Government, got the idea that Ganesan's app could be used in the South. The two brought Griffin and Andy Danylchuk, a UMass fisheries ecologist, on board, and a week and a half later MoGo was born.

MoGo's official launch was on Sunday. The first image received was a tar ball washed up on the shore in Pensacola, Fla.

"I wish we had thought of this even earlier," Schweik said. "I think a lot of people are feeling like, #this is a mess and what can I do about it?' Hopefully this will be a way some people will be able to help."

Photos and GPS coordinates uploaded through MoGo do not go directly to Unified Command. Instead they are fed into a database run by the UMass scientists and available at the app's website. The database will soon be open to the public. Schweik said he would like the database to become a resource for scientists doing research on the oil leak. The data will also be mapped online, providing information about the spread and impact of the oil geographically. The information could also guide restoration efforts, he said.

Griffin said he intends to keep MoGo and its website functional for the decades he anticipates it will take to clean up the oil spill.

Griffin knows the long-lasting effect of a massive oil spill. He's seen it firsthand. As a wildlife biologist, Griffin does research in Alaska at Prince William Sound the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The spill released an estimated 11 million gallons of oil across 1,300 miles of coastline. Twenty-one years later Griffin still finds oil on the shore.

"You can still turn over stones up there and smell oil," Griffin said. "It's not recovered in terms of fish and wildlife.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Griffin said of the leak's impact in the Gulf. "People think we have the technology to just clean this up and make it go away, but we don't, so this is very sad. This is the largest oil spill in U.S. history and it's getting bigger by the second."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@gazettenet.com.
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