Whistleblowing can be risky. Not only might you risk alienation from your friends and family, but you could also expose yourself to liability, and, in extreme cases, have the government come after your shrink.
But one small West Virginia group has found a way to spot possible wrongdoing from afar, using nothing more than publicly available resources.
Since 2001, West Virginia-based SkyTruth has been compiling published satellite and aerial images, then tasking computers and citizen volunteers to sort them to uncover potential environmental damage.
The group's big break came in 2010, when they used NASA satellite image rolls to show the leakage area from the BP oil spill was 20-times larger than the oil giant's stated estimate.
This summer, they highlighted the scale of the impact from a breach at a Canadian mine that sent an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of toxic waste into the surrounding environment.
Now, as researchers try to fill in the gaps of fracking's health effects — good studies of which remain scarce, despite much evidence the effects may be substantial — they are calling on data from SkyTruth's and its FrackFinder project.
Using satellite images published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SkyTruth and volunteer crowdsourcers have been plotting fracking activity across Pennsylvania and Ohio to better allow researchers to pinpoint where fracking is occurring.
The results look like this — here's all the fracking activity now occurring around Pittsburgh, including just outside the city's airport.
And here's a map of Pennsylvania impoundment areas — the large ponds and reservoirs that hold water required for fracking, and which contain the "flowback" or "produced water" that returns to the surface often laden with toxic and often undisclosed chemicals.
The Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University has already begun using FrackFinder's info on the location and size of impoundments and flared wells in a study of over 35,000 asthma patients and nearly 20,000 pregnancies in Pennsylvania gas country. The results could impact New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision on whether to lift the state's fracking moratorium.
"Without SkyTruth’s work we would not have been able to characterize these exposure sources very well," Brian Schwartz, Bloomberg professor of environmental health sciences and one of the leaders of the study, said in an email.
SkyTruth's David Manthos said that in the case of FrackFinder, crowdsourcing is not necessarily cheaper than having an intern comb through the images. But it is one of the best ways of raising awareness about the local impact of fracking.
"By asking people to look through images, showing them what oil and gas sites look like in state forests, in the rural farmland of Pennsylvania, we can show people what that resource extraction really looks like," he said.
The group's work is broadly aimed at various forms of "extraction" and its after effects. For their latest project, the group partnered with Google and Oceana to create Global Fishing Watch, a takeoff of Global Forest Watch, to raise awareness about overfishing. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 87 percent of the world's assessed fish stocks are now classified as overexploited or fully exploited.
The groups tracked fishing activity from 2012 to 2014. The user-focused platform is still being prototyped, but the group has already produced a map. Here's the result in GIF form for worldwide real-time fishing activity that occurred during they survey period:
Manthos said the goal of this project was not to name and shame commercial anglers — though he acknowledged this will be one impact — but rather convince fisherman to embrace tracking signals so that they can prove to the world that they are not over-fishing.
"This tool will let anyone check up and say, '"Purple Lilac 88" — they're good.' "
Recently, the group has been highlighting the impact of rising sea levels along the Gulf— caused, of course, by a pollution process that begins with oil and gas extraction. Here's Cat Island, one of Louisiana's barrier islands, slowly disappearing — something that should concern not only state residents but oil and gas companies as well.
"As the barrier islands melt away, the bays and marshes of the Mississippi Delta — hosting a vast, aging network of oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure — are increasingly exposed to hurricanes and other severe storms," SkyTruth founder John Amos asks in the blog post on the island. "Can we fix this problem in time?"
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.