Citizen scientists: Help crowd-source climate change research

GIS specialist Darragh O'Keefe logs on to the Ventus website to demonstrate its Google maps interface.
(Sandra Leander)

Citizen scientists, environmentalists and anyone who lives near a power plant -- your services are requested. Climate change scientist Kevin Robert Gurney needs your help in a grand undertaking: the mapping of all the power plants in the world.

It’s a big job, and he and the people in his lab cannot do it alone.

Gurney, an associate professor at Arizona State University, builds carbon dioxide emission data models that help him and others better understand how carbon moves around the planet and how it effects climate change.

To build more accurate models, he needs to know where exactly CO2 is being produced.


Of course, CO2 is produced in lots of different ways. Our bodies produce it, our cars produce it, plants produce it. But power plants generate about 40% of the of CO2 emissions sent into Earth’s atmosphere every year. If he knew where those power plants were, how much energy they generate and what fuels they use, he could create significantly more accurate carbon cycle models.

Gurney estimates there are as many as 30,000 power plants throughout the world. He had assumed that basic information about these plants -- like exactly where they are located and how much energy they generate -- would be publicly available on some type of international register, but that is not the case.

The U.S. keeps excellent data about its power plants -- not just where they are and how much energy they make, but also how much carbon the release into the air. Canada, the European Union and India also keep track of their power plants, but detailed information about power plants in the rest of the world is difficult to come by.

Gurney was able to find one database that had a list of power plants worldwide, but the location of each plant was identified by the closest city, which could be 15 miles away. Gurney said he needs to know where a power plant is within one mile in order to improve his models.

His lab tried using Google Earth to locate the biggest power plants, but it took his grad students six months to find just 500 plants. “It’s like looking for 25,000 needles in a giant haystack,” he said. “It cannot be done.”

After exhausting every possibility he could think of, he came up with the idea of crowd-sourcing the information by asking people to submit information about power plants they may work at or live near.

“We thought, there are lots of people around the planet who live near power plants. Maybe they could tell us where the plant is, how much energy it produces, and whether it uses coal, oil or natural gas” he said. “That alone would give us more information than we have now.”

To make it more fun for people to contribute, the lab turned the project into a bit of a game. Users contribute information about a power plant by pinning it to a Google map. The more information about power plants they contribute, the more points they get.


When the project ends in 2014, the winner will be declared the “Supreme Power Plant Emissions GURU!” and will get a trophy. The person will also be named a co-author on a scientific paper that demonstrates the usefulness on crowd-sourcing in scientific research.

The project, dubbed Ventus, has its own website that launched Monday morning. By Monday afternoon Gurney said people had logged on from almost every country in the world.

“I’m always surprised by how fast this type of thing moves around the planet,” he said.

In a few weeks his lab plans to launch Spanish- and Chinese-language versions of the site, and he hopes to expand it to other languages.


“There are a lot of people who are committed to helping out with climate change,” he said. “If we tap into that, we can accomplish a piece of science that we couldn’t do otherwise.”