Citizen Science


Last year, the United States was challenged with two of largest natural disasters in recent years. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the islands infrastructure in a matter of hours and on the opposite side of the country, the Thomas Fire swept along the coast for 18 days engulfing the region in flames. In the face of these two unprecedented natural events, we learn how two communities from opposite sides of the country used Google technology to create a comprehensive, citizen sourced disaster response. 


When fires surrounded the Ojai Valley, in the largest California wildfires in the state's history, local residents helped guide each other to safety by crowdsourcing web updates on the fire's path, when local news could no longer keep up with the lighting-fast spread of the blazes. After Hurricane Maria destroyed the electrical grid of Puerto Rico, emergency responders began utilizing crowd sourced data compiled by private citizens on multi-layered google maps that relayed real-time updates of the electrical and medical conditions of those in greatest need. FEMA agents even began using Google phones equipped with the GPS data of these maps as the primary tool for their response work.

Data and the way we share it with each other can be used to strengthen communities and sometimes, even save lives. These stories highlight the incredible power of data to help people when shared for good. And sharing these stories can teach others how they can shape their communities by sharing information proactively and effectively. 

We propose creating a documentary film telling the story of this simple yet effective implementation of Google Docs and Maps for people powered crisis management. 


As the fire raged across the hillsides with speeds of up to 10 miles per hour, the communities of
Ventura County scrambled to find accurate information.


As the local government rushed to try and create a crisis management website, residents turned to social media platforms to find real time information about where the fire was going and who needed to evacuate. Without any formal information, this forum quickly developed into a panic, full of misinformation and hearsay. With lives and property at stake, one former resident who was concerned about his family decided to create a direct line to the best information possible, the local Ventura County police and fire scanners. From halfway across the country, he made a Google Doc and began dictating the scanner calls word for word, making the information accessible to everyone with a cell phone.

Requesting more retardant from air attacks between Carpinteria and fire line. Air attack approaching from San Bernardino eta 30 min
— 2:01 PM CAL FIRE

Soon others joined the effort and began taking shifts from various parts of the country, filling the important details in as they happened, where the fire was and where it was going. This simple application of this technology was critical to thousands of residents, was praised in meetings following the recovery effort, and very well may have saved lives.  

Multiple structures in danger. Additional resources requested
— 10:15 AM VC FIRE

Hurricane Maria


In the wake of Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico, a group of private citizens led by Dr. Sally Priester took it upon themselves to volunteer and fill the gaps between federal and state infrastructure recovery efforts using crowdsourced data mapping.

Using Google Maps, they created a layered data point system, making real time crisis management updates on supplies, electricity, and medical need across the island. In collaboration with NGO’s, this data was utilized to ensure that the most remote of residents could receive the things they needed ranging from medicine to cell phone communication.

Without these tools, mapping the disaster landscape would have been far more difficult if not impossible on such a scale.


Terra Matters is a cinematic documentary series that tells inspiring stories from the front-lines of sustainable innovation. Terra Matters tells positive stories of technology, industry, and conservation intersecting to create sustainable solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. In this series, complex ideas are made accessible through the lens of constructive journalism, giving a voice to reporters who focus on solution-based stories of what our future can be. Terra Matters celebrates innovation, presenting a roadmap for a scalable and sustainable future.