iSeeChange Turns Citizens into Climate Reporters

A set of farmers in Paonia celebrate having been able to make a second cutting in what has been an unusually poor season for hay. Image Credit: Greg and Andrew Cranson/iSeeChange/TheAlmanac.org.

A set of farmers in Paonia celebrate having been able to make a second cutting in what has been an unusually poor season for hay. Image Credit: Greg and Andrew Cranson/iSeeChange/TheAlmanac.org.

Paonia is a small town with big ideas. Tucked on the western slope of Colorado, it is known primarily for agriculture and mining, but for the past year Paonia has also been the site of an innovative crowdsourced media experiment—the iSeeChange project, an attempt to promote conversation about global climate change in people’s backyards.

iSeeChange is a radio and online series that turns traditional reporting on its head by letting the public drive the stories. In traditional reporting (or traditional science), the professional asks the question, seeks the answer, and then reports results back to the public. In iSeeChange, members of the public are encouraged to report their own observations or questions about climate change. Then KVNF, Paonia’s local radio station, pairs the question with a relevant scientist, who does his or her best to provide answers or background information.

It is a way for the public and the scientific community to meet each other halfway in the discussion about climate change. “It’s very much grown from the community,” explains Julia Kumari Drapkin, creator and lead producer of the project. “Our stories begin with ‘What do you want to know?’ and not with ‘This is what we have to tell you.’”

iSeeChange is part of Localore, a nationwide initiative to reinvent public media. Localore is produced by the Association of Independents in Radio with more than $1 million in funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Early in 2012, AIR announced 10 producers had been awarded grants for their projects and helped to pair them with appropriate media stations. Although the focus of the each producer is widely varied, all the Localore projects encourage research and development, challenging producers to blend digital and traditional broadcast tools to expand the reach of public media in local communities.

Drapking interviews Fire Chief Doug Fritz. Image Credit: Julia Kumari Drapkin.

Drapkin interviews Fire Chief Doug Fritz. Image Credit: Julia Kumari Drapkin.

Drapkin applied for and received a grant to focus on stories about climate change. She wanted to know, “As the environment changes, how are we changing too?”

Before receiving her location assignment, Drapkin was living in Washington, D.C., and had never heard of Paonia. She expected to be posted somewhere like New Orleans, Boston, or Chicago.

“My gut reaction was ‘no way’!” she says. “But whenever I have a strong visceral reaction like that, I’ve trained myself to back off and give the situation another look.”

After doing some research on Paonia, Julia contacted the executive director of KNVF, Sally Kane. Drapkin was inspired by Kane’s enthusiasm, and soon realized that a rural community like Paonia was an ideal place to ask people about environmental changes. Soon she was driving across the country to live there for a year herself.

From farmers to ranchers and the owners of skiing or recreation enterprises, the livelihoods of many in Western Colorado are directly tied to the environment. As a result, people are very aware of the tiny changes that can add up to mean big changes in traditional climate patterns. “They know their backyards. They know when things are right, and they know when things are off,” Drapkin explains.

It also turns out that backyard changes in Paonia are a noteworthy reflection of climate trends elsewhere across the United States.

[pullquote width=”250″]Public science and the public are often paying attention to the same things. The difference is that scientists write papers, while citizens make decisions.”
– Julia Kumari Drapkin, Producer[/pullquote]The very first public questions, sent via text message to iSeeChange, turned out to be prescient for the upcoming year. One of those texts was from the local fire chief, Doug Fritz. He was concerned that wildfire season was starting early. Fritz alerted iSeeChange in April of 2012, and his observations proved an early warning for an especially virulent fire season in Colorado.

This type of foresight was no outlier. Time and again, Drapkin found that the locals noticed environmental cues long before popular media did: signs of a bad fire season, signs of a coming drought, and even early evidence that the mosquito populations (and West Nile Virus) might be a concern that summer.

Many signs of change that citizens describe are also useful to the science community, helping to confirm and inform trends observed by biologists, climate modelers, and digital mappers.

According to Drapkin, “Public science and the public are often paying attention to the same things. The difference is that scientists write papers, while citizens make decisions.” For example, the lilac is an early-blooming bush, and some farmers, like Scott Horner, use the bloom’s first appearance to help them determine when to plant. Scientists also tend to watch for lilac blooms an indicator of the onset of spring.

As Drapkin continued to see parallels between two communities, she began to wonder what these observations could look like online, with near-real time data feeds. The result is theAlmanac.org. Through collaboration with Zeega, a team of digital developers in New Orleans, and Paonia-based artist Andrea Lecos, iSeeChange launched the iSeeChange Almanac in January. The site juxtaposes quantitative data feeds—like temperature and precipitaton—with anecdotal observations.

Folks ice skiing along an ice flow. Credit: Kale Casey/iSeeChange/TheAlmanac.org.

Super cold temperatures help form an ice flow in January 2013 in Paonia, Colorado. Image Credit: Kale Casey/iSeeChange/TheAlmanac.org.

In addition to creating a crowdsourced ecological record of change, Drapkin believes the iSeeChange Almanac can be a tool to help communities discuss and consider responses to climate change. The project accepts input from all viewpoints on the issue; the important thing is making sure that people have a chance to be heard and to form their own conclusions based on the stories they hear.

“The average American doesn’t want to be told about climate change, they want to figure it out for themselves,” Drapkin says.

Funding for iSeeChange was granted for one year. Since it began in March of 2012, it is due to end in March 2013.

As the final few weeks roll by, Drapkin and the iSeeChange team are discussing its next phase. On the table are grant applications, questions on how to partner with scientists to make use of data sets from iSeeChange, and how best to use the Almanac to tell compelling multimedia stories. Drapkin has high hopes for the site’s longevity and potential. It has received numerous posts from across the country, and even a few posts from France.

“As a scientist and a journalist,” Drapkin says, “one of the greatest powers you have is the power to ask questions. We’ve turned that power over the community.”

As iSeeChange determines its future path, those interested in past stories from the series may find them online at Soundcloud. Scientists or digital mappers interested in partnering with iSeeChange to use anecdotal data or discuss next steps can contact Drapkin via email at iseechange@kvnf.org.