New Citizen Science Program Will Use Social Media Posts To Monitor Drought In Utah

Oct 6, 2020

U.S. Drought Monitor map showing current (October 1, 2020) drought conditions for the western U.S. Maps are updated weekly. Exceptional drought areas in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico are new or expanded this week, according to the accompanying summary narrative.
Credit Brad Rippey / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Through a new citizen science initiative, the Utah Climate Center will capture drought data through public observations posted on social media.

Drought is a serious concern in Utah. It negatively impacts farming, ranching and outdoor recreation in the state. National and regional drought outlook reports provide good information, said Simon Wang, assistant director of the Utah Climate Center. But information is not available for much of Utah, since weather stations are limited. Wang hopes citizen science may be able to fill the gap.

“So what we do is when people comment on social media, or posts on social media. I say social media and on a general basis, but mostly Twitter," said Sarbajit Mukerjee. "We have a database Twitter provides us we can access that. These are the comments that have been made regarding this topic. So what we will do is we'll map these tweets. So basically, it's a drought monitoring tool.”

Mukherjee is a doctoral student in Computer Sciences at Utah State University. Using people’s comments on social media, he made successful early predictions of the winner of the 2016 presidential election. This project caught Wang’s attention.

“If we could model this thing (drought observations), it would be easier for us to predict the drought even before the National Drought Monitor announces it, and then the state can take actions regarding that. So that's the goal," Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee said they successfully tested the tool using Twitter data from Colorado, which has similar climate and drought issues, but more people making observations about local climate conditions using social media.

Anyone can participate in this project-- no special measurements or equipment are needed-- just a willingness to say something about what you are seeing when you are out and about in Utah. When you tweet, use the hashtag #utahdrought or the hashtag #drought.

“If people are uncomfortable posting on Twitter, then we understand that," said Mukherjee. "So we have a feedback section on the Utah climate center web page, where people can go and post too.”