After 17 years underground, a brood of cicadas is emerging from the soil this spring, from the Carolinas to Connecticut, to hastily molt, mate, and die.

WNYC, New York City’s public-radio station, is monitoring—and predicting—the action with its “Cicada Tracker” crowdsourcing project.

John Keefe, senior editor of WNYC’s Data News Team, got the idea after learning that the insects only come topside when the soil reaches 64 degrees, meaning the swarm would unfold gradually, from south to north.

Keefe and some colleagues built a prototype sensor to measure soil temperature. Then WNYC hosted build-your-own-sensor parties and posted DIY instructions online, along with a “Bug Blog,” a map that displays the changing soil temperatures, and an interactive decoder where participants report their sensor readings.

Keefe says this is mostly for fun, but that they have been talking to some entomologists and may be able to help the scientists gather data on things like the stages, locations, and numbers of the cicada swarm. “The other cool part of this,” he says, “is that it could serve as a model for gathering other datasets—like measuring noise or pollution, stories of actual significance.”

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