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Ventus: can we crowdsource the fight against global warming?

Ventus: can we crowdsource the fight against global warming?


An ambitious new 'game' wants you to help map greenhouse gas producers

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china pollution (francisco anzola flickr)
china pollution (francisco anzola flickr)

As the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere continues to rise, scientists are looking to learn more about one of the leading causes of these emissions: power plants. According to Dr. Kevin Gurney, associate professor at Arizona State University, there are an estimated 30,000 fossil fuel-burning power plants spread throughout the world, but very little information on where they're located and the emissions they produce. So in order to gather that information, he and a team of climate science researchers at ASU have created a "game" — Ventus, a crowdsourced project powered with data gathered by "citizen scientists."

"We have almost no other method by which to do this."

"We have almost no other method by which to do this," Gurney tells The Verge. "There is no authoritative international database with the necessary information." While much of this information is available for plants in North America and Europe, elsewhere in the world it's much harder to come by. Essentially, Ventus — which is the Latin word for wind — is a website where anyone can enter data or add to existing data, either anonymously or by registering. You can enter the details of a plant's location as well as its annual CO2 emissions, the type of fuel it uses, and how much electricity it generates. In order to ensure the information is accurate, it will be compared against existing estimates and, hopefully, data from other users.

Of course, the average person probably doesn't know much about the annual carbon emissions of their local power plant. While certain kinds of data — primarily location — are easy to come by for most users, others can be a bit more challenging. Gurney and his team are hoping that this problem will be solved in part by attracting "power users" to the project, "who may very well be somebody in a federal government, maybe in an energy agency, who has the information and is able to give it to us." But they're also betting that people who live near these plants will be able to fill in gaps. "It's sort of like, the big factory down the street, do you know what they make?" he says. "If you live near one, you know that. And we're hoping that for every power plant, there are a dozen individuals that do know that — and we only need one.

"We suspect we'll have multiple users giving us information for a single facility," adds Gurney, "and through the act of having our own estimates and multiple individual estimates, we hope to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff." The data will also be analyzed as it's being entered to make sure it's internally consistent — so if you input information on a plant's electrical capacity and generation, both of those things need to make sense relative to each other.

"It's going to improve climate projections into the future."

Ventus is described as a game, but it's only one in the loosest sense of the word. You'll receive points for entering usable data, and the person with highest total in 2014 will be labelled "Supreme Power Plant Emissions Guru" and receive an engraved trophy. While that might not sound as fun as playing Far Cry, Gurney is hoping that the real incentive for users will simply be the ability to help with a very real issue. "I think that there are a surprising number of people who are both passionate and really interested in helping out in various ways," he tells The Verge. "Not just in science, but particularly with the climate change problem. We're hoping to leverage that passion and that interest."

That citizen passion could eventually provide some of the necessary information used to answer fundamental questions of climate and carbon cycle science. "It's going to improve climate projections into the future," says Gurney. "It's at the core of a lot of climate change and carbon cycle research."