Using crowdsourcing to map environmental hazards

May 10th, 2013 | by Ian James | Comments

An innovative website allows people in the Coachella Valley and the Imperial Valley to report environmental hazards, channel their complaints to government agencies and track actions taken in response using online maps that flag each report with a colored dot.

The website, called IVAN, uses crowdsourcing to collect reports of incidents such as illegal dumping, foul-smelling air, smoke from agricultural burns, sewage leaks, contaminated water and pesticides blowing in the wind.

People can report a problem in minutes via computer or mobile device, in English or Spanish, by typing in a description and clicking a category. Complaints can be submitted anonymously, and details about each report can be viewed by clicking on the dots on the map.

“We’re able to share information back and forth with government, communities,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of the environmental health advocacy group Comite Civico Del Valle. “I think that’s the future: mapping and allowing the community to be the eyes and ears.”

Olmedo’s Brawley-based group developed IVAN, or Imperial Visions Action Network, with support from Imperial County and state agencies. The website was first launched in the Imperial Valley and was expanded to the Coachella Valley in early 2011. It also has grown to incorporate Kern County and Fresno.

Agencies that follow up on complaints include the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the Colorado River Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Roger Kintz, environmental justice coordinator for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said he is a strong believer in this method of online reporting.

“It is a tool for communities to become their own best advocates and to have an ownership role in addressing some of the environmental health concerns … in their own communities,” Kintze said.

Kintze said IVAN also provides an avenue for government agencies to report back to communities on actions taken, such as cleanups, fines or other responses.

The website uses software developed by Ushahidi, a nonprofit company that produces open source software for information collection and interactive mapping.

“I think it really serves as a valuable model for other regions in California,” said Phoebe Seaton, an attorney with the organization California Rural Legal Assistance. She said crowdsourcing can be particularly useful in rural areas as a way of stimulating more reporting of local environmental problems and boosting communication between communities and government agencies.

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