Where does data come from, and where does it go? Knowing the conditions under which data is produced, and the agenda of its authors, vastly affects how well we trust it -- one need look no further than the discord triggered by the diverse studies of the BP Oil Spill, or the controversies around the contamination of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. In most cases, though, we're guilty of not asking hard enough questions: as information consumers, and especially as designers. Natalie Jeremijenko hit the nail on the head in her critique of our recent obsession with data visualization:
"...the designers of these types of projects use extant data sets from the EPA, from the Toxic Relief Inventory, federal databases, and do so without criticism, without asking how the data is generated, who collected it and under what conditions. That is, what does the data actually represent?"
What is lacking is not legibility, but trust. At a Summer 2010 town hall meeting in Buras, Louisiana, a fisherman with a bottle of oil in hand stood up and demanded why he should trust government statements that seafood was safe to eat, since he was still collecting oil from the bayous that he fished. A report released by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental group, finds that 64.1% of survey respondents in three of the coastal Louisiana communities were concerned about the safety of their seafood in Fall 2010, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network has released numbers identifying Alkylated PAHs and Oil Range Organic Petroleum Hydrocarbons in seafood samples from areas they tested. Yet -- disregarding local knowledge and concern -- the government maintains that Gulf Coast seafood is safe.
The solution, we believe, is for local communities to produce their own high-quality data. We in the Grassroots Mapping community have worked since May 2010 to gather such data; information that can potentially bridge the gap between independent citizen-led data and that of sources such as NOAA. Rather than producing alluring visualizations of existing data, we've been working with Gulf Coast residents in the field to document the effects of oil on shorelines -- with do-it-yourself aerial photography.
For less than $100 in parts, we use helium balloons and kites to send cameras to over a thousand feet, and stitch the resulting images into high-resolution maps. Over a hundred volunteers have hit the beaches to take tens of thousands of photos, depicting slicks, oiled wetlands, and the birds, fish, and plants threatened by the disaster -- at far better resolution than Google Maps. As we have refined these tools, new groups have adopted them to document a variety of environmental crises -- in Brooklyn, for example, a new Grassroots Mapping chapter has recently begun monitoring cleanup efforts of the Gowanus Canal with balloon photography.
We are concerned that, to date, much of so-called citizen science treats people like mere data points. "Crowdsourcing" often emphasizes data consistency, and asks a faceless public to "submit" reports. The use of the crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi during the BP Oil Spill was one project which faced such challenges. Between May 1 and July 31, over 2,200 volunteer hours, 29 outreach trips, and the support of 46 volunteers was expended towards publicizing the Oil Spill Crisis Map -- an Ushahidi map -- as a way to independently report spill impacts and to gather reports. To this end, 1,595 reports were collected during this period, but only 17% of them were reported directly by residents -- a relatively sparse portrait of the disaster, and far too little for an accurate needs assessment. One of the worries that the Louisiana Bucket Brigade voiced was that the difficulty of verifying reports meant that it could potentially be used to misrepresent the effects of the spill.
Ushahidi is an innovative tool and its developers are adapting to these challenges. But the promise of engaging with local communities as full actors in seeking environmental justice has recently driven a group of us Grassroots Mappers to begin inventing new tools, based on the spirit of our balloon mapping kit: cheap, participatory, 'hacker' tools which produce excellent, legible, and independently produced data. We're organizing workshops in a variety of communities to test these prototypes in areas of environmental conflict, and building a new generation of web-based analysis tools on an open platform where results can be published and interpreted. Such an approach, while radical, better equips the public to challenge government and industry data, and lays the groundwork for a more representative approach to environmental justice.