Crowdsourcing the Search for Carbon Dioxide Emissions

May 30, 2013 · 1 comment

According to Arizona State University (ASU) Professor Kevin Gurney, there are approximately 30,000 power plants throughout the world, and collectively they account for close to half of all fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. As a modeler of these emissions, Gurney is trying to learn as much as possible about every one of the plants. Where are they? What kind of fuel does each plant use? How much CO2 does each one release into the atmosphere?

Obtaining this kind of data, however, is a monumental task. There is no worldwide database with all of the power plant information Gurney is looking for, and even after enlisting a number of undergraduate students in his lab to scour Google Earth for the locations of the largest plants, in six months they were able to identify the locations of only 500 across the globe. Realizing that the effort was “like looking for 25,000 needles in a giant haystack,” as Gurney described it, he has now taken another approach by creating an online game that utilizes contributions from the general public to pinpoint the locations of power plants and hopefully quantify the amount of CO2 each releases into the atmosphere.

The project is called Ventus, which is Latin for “wind.” In the game, players are asked for four pieces of information: the location of the power plant (within a few hundred meters), the type of fuel used at the plant, the amount of electricity the plant generates, and the amount of CO2 that is emitted from the plant. Participants in the game can contribute as much information as they have by placing pins on a Google map at the location(s) of the plants. When the game is completed in 2014, the person who contributed the largest amount of useable information will be declared “Supreme Power Plant Emissions GURU!” and will receive a trophy, as well as be a coauthor on a scientific paper about crowd-sourcing in scientific research.

“Our logic is that for every power plant in the world, there are probably at least a dozen people who live near it, work at it, or know someone who works at it” explained ASU’s Darragh O’Keefe, who built the website. “With the proliferation of phones and GPS, it makes it pretty easy to locate things.”

Early response to the game was enthusiastic, with Gurney reporting that people had logged on from almost every country in the world within a day of its mid-May launch.

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