A drilling rig looms over a home in southwestern Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project/FracTracker Alliance.

When Dr. Kirk Jalbert joined FracTracker Alliance in 2015, his first priority as manager of community-based research and engagement was to rebuild the organization’s mobile app. The map-based resource served people all over the country living near natural gas and oil wells, pipelines and refineries, primarily those associated with unconventional shale gas developmen—a practice more commonly known as fracking.

The app was “very rudimentary,” Jalbert says, and “it wasn’t released with very much user input. We definitely saw that there was an opportunity for a potentially valuable tool.”

After a year of intense development that included gathering user feedback and beta testing, the local nonprofit organization recently released a completely rebuilt FracTracker app. The new version not only shows where drilling is taking place but allows users to submit reports on it. They can also upload and post photos taken with their smartphones and indicate how drilling activity is affecting them. Users can then scroll through reports much like they would with posts on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

FracTracker believes their new app can serve as a documenting and tracking tool for reporters, residents, researchers and groups concerned about oil and gas and its impacts.

The app, both in its past and current forms, was developed in partnership with Viable Industries, a Pittsburgh-based digital creative studio. The company primarily works with nonprofit and environmental organizations, including building an award-winning app for the water quality advocacy group, Water Reporter.

Viable partner Josh Sager admits the app is a vast improvement over the previous version, which was mostly limited to clicking through numerous pins on an interactive map.

“It was information overload,” says Sager. “You would see a map with a bunch of pins on it and you would have to engage with each pin, whereas now you can see a conversation almost in real time. This approach is much more social and feed-oriented, so you can see immediately what’s happened in a particular area, where previously it was more like hunting.”

He adds that they also integrated a new mapping feature that allows users to search through millions of pins—all indicators of natural gas and oil wells—at a speed that’s “lightning fast” compared to the first app.

Drafting a report requires an easy, step-by-step process. First, you classify what part of the oil and gas industry you’re reporting on, whether it’s related to wells, refineries or pipelines. The next stage specifies how your senses are being impacted, which can include being exposed to offending smells or loud noises produced by drilling. From there, you can add a description or photos and post the report to the feed. Each submission also comes stamped with a time and exact location.

Users can also update or edit their reports or flag inappropriate submissions so a FracTracker moderator can review them.

Screenshots of the FracTracker app. Images provided by FracTracker Alliance.

Jalbert says the real-time, crowd-sourced aspects of the new app should appeal to users worried that their voices aren’t being heard.

“Chances are good that when people submit something it’s an immediate concern,” he says. “They don’t want to have to wait for it to post so they can show it to other people.”

He adds that the ability to provide a story with visuals makes the app experience far more effective, using a recently submitted report as an example.

“Somebody took a photograph of sedimentation and what they think might have been drainage off a well pad,” he says. “They put a really robust description in there which was fantastic. They said, ‘It hasn’t rained in a few days and we see this here and it has a smell to it.’”

The enhanced FracTracker app comes at a time when the oil and natural gas drilling industry continues to expand throughout the country, and not without incident. Last January, Public Herald reported that the Department of Environmental Protection received 9,442 fracking-related complaints in Pennsylvania alone between 2004 and November 29, 2016. That number includes 229 complaints from Allegheny County residents who blame everything from waterway pollution to sinkholes on drilling activity.

The app complements other online tools designed to empower communities concerned with how the oil and natural gas industry is affecting the environment and public health. Recently, the McMurray-based Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project released a registry for people convinced that fracking is making them sick.

Jalbert says they also plan on expanding the app to include data on more specific activity, like abandoned wells or earthquakes in areas where fracking is common.

FracTracker is now available to download for free from the Apple and Google Play app stores.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.