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For Gas-Drilling Data, There’s a New Place to Dig

A couple of environmental and public health groups have teamed up to create FracTracker, a website that lets users post and find information about natural gas drilling and where it is happening.

Starving for data about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale? A new website hopes to feed your need. A couple of environmental and public health groups have teamed up to create FracTracker, a web tool that brings together different data sets and presents the information on a map.

Launched in late June, FracTracker allows users to upload their own data on all-things-gas-drilling, from lists of drilling permits or incident records to maps of air monitoring stations. Others can then go to the site and either look at the data in map form or download it raw.

The site is run by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), which is funded by the Heinz Endowments. It is hosted by the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, an environmental group that funds local projects aimed at protecting the state’s waterways.

The center’s director of operations, Charles Christen, said CHEC came up with the idea while working with communities in western Pennsylvania, which along with much of West Virginia, New York and Ohio sit atop the Marcellus Shale, an extensive rock formation that holds vast quantities of natural gas.

As we’ve been reporting for two years, people in those communities have become increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of gas drilling. But they’ve often found it difficult to come up with the hard data they need to make informed decisions – or even to know what’s happening on a neighbor’s property. The site is designed to fill that gap, Christen said.

FracTracker allows people to search by topic or select a specific area on a map. It also shows who uploaded the specific data set and whether other people have downloaded it or found it helpful. Since anyone can upload a data set, this transparency is critical to determining whether the information is reliable. CHEC will remove irrelevant data, but it doesn’t vet everything for accuracy. CHEC is counting on users to police the data themselves and to distinguish the good from the bad.

Christen said the site may be difficult for the average person to use, so the center has set up a blog to serve as a forum for learning more about the tool. Over the next couple of months, it plans to reach out to various groups that not only may benefit from the site but also may be able to provide the data that FracTracker relies on.

“The success of this network, this information-sharing tool, really depends on the quality of the data we get,” Christen said. “I think we’re going to see really quality data up on this site and a lot of snapshots being used in a lot of different ways.”

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