Written by: Tom Rieland
Date: May 28, 2010

A virtual meter setup by the crew at PBS Newshour is letting us track how much oil is leaking into the Gulf.

Depending on whose estimate you believe, just drag the slider bar and see how many gallons a day is going into the Gulf. Here is an excerpt from the blog from PBS “NewsHour” Interactive Editor Chris Amico, in which he expressed his concerns about producing the meter:

“It’s probably worth mentioning up front that at first, I thought building this thing was a bad idea. I thought it was gimmicky, and that it assigned specificity where there was none. I argued that any number we pick as the rate of spillage was almost guaranteed to be wrong, since the government, BP and outside experts were all changing their estimates and estimates varied so widely. Also, I didn’t think I could do it.

My colleague Dave had the idea a few weeks ago. No one, he rightly pointed out, was keeping track of how much oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The leak had been going on for less than two weeks at the time, and most news reports only noted the daily spill rate.

Figuring out how much had spilled based on when the leak started and how many barrels or gallons per day were leaking isn’t hard: total = rate * time. I’ve been joking at work that the past month has been all eighth-grade algebra and JavaScript.

But as I mentioned, picking the right rate is probably impossible. The official rate, from the US Coast Guard and NOAA went from 1,000 barrels per day to 5,000 to some unknown number greater than 5,000. Outside experts have said anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 barrels a day could be leaking. BP told Congress it could be as high as 60,000 barrels a day (then called such estimates ‘alarmist.’)

So the challenge was to build a tool that would do simple math, but had all the uncertainty of the situation baked in. Hence the slider. That way, we let users pick which estimates they believe, and the ticker shows them how much oil has leaked into the Gulf based on that figure.”