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Calling Citizen Scientists: You Can Help When Disasters Strike!

Citizen science can help support disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

On August 31, President Obama proclaimed September as National Preparedness Month 2015. As the Presidential Proclamation stated:

“Every year, communities across our country face emergencies -- from unforeseen natural disasters to deliberate acts -- that test our Nation's grit and challenge us to overcome tragedy. While my Administration is working to keep all Americans safe, each of us can do our part.  Together, we can protect our families and help our communities by planning for emergencies and for the unexpected.”

When you, are prepared, the nation is prepared. There are many ways that you can prepare – and help prepare your family, school, and/or workplace – for disasters that may happen where you live. To learn more, you can visit

You can help with disaster response and recovery almost anywhere in the country through online Federal citizen-science and crowdsourcing projects. These projects enable you to provide timely, critical information needed to support disaster rescue and recovery efforts, as well cutting-edge research related to the environment, hazards, and disasters. What a great way to spend your Internet time!

Here are some examples of Federal efforts leveraging citizen science and crowdsourcing for disaster preparedness:

  • iCoast – Did the Coast Change? In 2014, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) launched a crowdsourcing application called “iCoast – Did the Coast Change?” to allow citizen scientists to identify storm-caused changes in coastlines by comparing before and after photographs, which is something computers are not yet advanced enough to do well. Citizen scientists who use iCoast help USGS improve predictions about coastal change and the vulnerability of communities to extreme storms. Learn more here.
  • Did You Feel It? “Did You Feel It?” is an online platform, maintained by USGS, through which individuals can report whether or not they experienced an earthquake: and how intense the quake was if they did. This gives researchers a more complete description of what people experienced, the effects of the earthquake, and the extent of damage than traditional ways of gathering felt information…and to get this information almost instantly. Learn more here.
  • Disaster Reporter  The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) mobile FEMA app includes a Disaster Reporter function where you can upload and share photos, along with short text descriptions, for public display on a map. Citizens, first responders, emergency managers, community response & recovery teams can both view and contribute information as events unfold. Learn more here.
  • mPING The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s mPING project employs citizen scientists to gather weather data. Since its launch in 2012, mPING has received more than 860,000 weather reports on weather events including rain, snow, ice, wind, tornadoes, floods, landslides, fog, and dust storms. These reports are used to improve forecasts related to road maintenance, aviation operations, and public warnings. Learn more here.
  • Skywarn The National Weather Service (NWS) relies on specially trained volunteers from across the country to report on severe thunderstorms, floods, tornadoes, snow and ice storms in their area. The work of these volunteers improves NWS’s ability to forecast dangerous weather conditions. If you’d like to join this dedicated corps of citizen stormspotters, you can learn more here.

And if you’re interested in disaster preparedness, citizen science and crowdsourcing, or all of the above then mark Wednesday, September 30 on your calendar! On that day, FEMA will host its annual America’s PrepareAthon!, an opportunity for individuals, organizations, and communities to prepare for specific hazards through group discussions drills, and exercises. The goal of PrepareAthon! is to increase the number of individuals nationwide who understand which disasters could happen in their community, know what to do to be safe and mitigate damage, take action to increase their preparedness, and participate in community resilience planning.

Also on September 30, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Domestic Policy Council will co-host “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People”: the first-ever White House citizen science forum. Tune in at from 8 AM – 12 PM EDT to join the discussion and celebration of the role that citizen science can play in advancing Federal agency missions and broader scientific and societal outcomes. You can also participate by tweeting your thoughts, comments, and questions to @WhiteHouseOSTP using the hashtag #WHCitSci.

Effective disaster preparedness, response, and recovery is a shared responsibility. Citizen science is just one way that you can help contribute.

Jenn Gustetic is Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Jacqueline R. Meszaros is Assistant Director for Natural Hazards Resilience at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Hannah Safford is a SINSI Fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.