Web tool tracks Gulf oil spill effects

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News


A web tool originally set up to keep track of political violence in Kenya is being used to monitor the fallout from oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ushahidi is a free, online mapping tool that can be used to collect and plot reports coming in from people via e-mail, SMS and Twitter.

It was used in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake to co-ordinate relief.

The oil spill map aims to track the long-term impact of the spill on the commercial fishing industry.

Most reports are coming from fishermen who cannot put to sea because of the oil.

One anonymous report reads: "He called himself a pearl diver. He said he's eating off the Red Cross truck and hates it - all he wants to do is get back to his work of harvesting oysters."

Others report dead birds and animals as well as incidents such as containment booms being washed ashore.

Fishermen's pain

The spill began after an explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off Louisiana in April.

BP has managed to seal one of three leaks but oil is still gushing into the sea.

The Ushahidi map was set up by the environmental monitoring group Louisiana Bucket Brigade to track the effects of the spill.

"The point is to produce a collective visual where we can all see the magnitude of the problem," Anne Rolfes, director of the group, told BBC News

After Hurricane Katrina, she said, there were lots of anecdotes about people's experience but they were not all recorded in one place.

The group had decided to concentrate on documenting the effects on the fishing industry because it would "suffer the biggest pain", she added.

"They managed to rebuild after Katrina but now, not only can they not fish, they are going further into debt."

The oil spill map was set up with help from students at Tulane University in New Orleans. It had originally been designed to monitor pollution from oil refineries in the area but had not been used.

"We had the infrastructure in place and then along came the oil spill," said Ms Rolfe.

Ushahidi was built amidst the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 to document the trouble.

Since then it has been deployed in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Haiti, where it helped to plot thousands of reports, which were then used by organisations such as the Red Cross to co-ordinate their relief efforts.

The so-called "crowd sourcing" tool is free and the organisation behind it encourages people to install and run it on their own.

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