A Digital Farmer's Almanac -- How Communities Track 'Microchanges' in Climate
New America Media | 2/11/2013, 11:08 a.m.
(Question & Answer, Ngoc Nguyen, Interview with Julia Kumari Drapkin)
The iSeeChange almanac allows people to make observations about climate change in their own backyards and ask scientists questions directly. NAM's Ngoc Nguyen spoke with the project's producer, Julia Kumari Drapkin, about how this experiment in crowd-sourced environmental reporting is spurring conversations about climate change in rural Colorado and elsewhere.
What is the idea behind the iSeeChange almanac?
I've worked closely with scientists, had personal conversations with them and written stories about scientists and why they think the way they think. After all this time, we're still struggling with communicating climate change ... You can't narrow down very easily global climate change to individual community experiences. Like when Hurricane Katrina slammed into my hometown of New Orleans.... could you attribute it to climate change?
We are afraid to go into local experiences and attribute climate change to local experiences because we don't want to make a mistake. That's a good fear to have, but it prevents us from having conversations with citizens who may have climate change affecting their lives.
As a journalist, what were you trying to change about the way environmental news is communicated?
I realized that part of the problem is the structure of the way [journalists] report. Traditionally, a science story begins with a scientist making observations and asking questions. They answers questions in a research paper, and if I [the reporter] have time, I find a local anecdote to make that experience seem familiar. What if we reverse that process? What if we provide tools and mechanisms to make observations about what is changing in their lives?
How does the website work?
People go online and make observations and ask questions, and the questions are answered by the community, which includes scientists. As questions get asked, we come through every week and review the postings. Either the questions are answered by the community or scientists or we call a scientist and get them to answer specific questions. For example, if there's an early spring, what happens?
It's a socially networked almanac -- half journalism, half farmer's almanac. People keep detailed notes about farms and ranches, in the same way that a biologist would keep field notes. It's relevant to their bottom line. They derive their livelihood off the land so they pay attention to the way it changes. Even on Facebook, there's a weather journal. It's never been curated and shared.
What have you learned and what's been surprising about the project so far?
I learned that when you give the community the power to ask the questions, it's one of the most empowering things you can do. It's a powerful [reporting] tool and allows me to see what is happening in the community months before things break in the mainstream [media]. Communities could tip off their news if they had the tools to do it. I do believe in that process. When we launched the website, I remember, I received texts about wildfires and droughts in April 2012, long before wildfires and droughts made mainstream news and headlines. In Colorado, we saw a historic wildfire season and ...half the country is in a drought now.