Jenny Price

Open access to the beach

When it comes to helping the public access publications and data, digital technology has been revolutionary. But what about beaches—can digital tools help make them openly accessible? All California’s beaches, below the mean high tide line, are “public.” Yet in practice, public access is thwarted with threatening signs and official-looking orange cones, and even obscured with fake garages. Along twenty miles of Malibu coast, there are only 17 access ways—most hidden.

To help the public find and enjoy these beaches, writer and environmental historian Jenny Price has produced an engaging mobile app. The app provides legal information about our right to enjoy this land (on wet sand or dry public easements), directions, photos of access points, tide data, and tips of what to do if challenged (make it a “teachable moment” or call the challenger’s bluff). Even for those of us far from Malibu, the app is a heartening example of how individuals can use digital tools to improve public access—not only to information, but also to de jure public natural areas.

Ant Spider Bee co-editor Kimberly Coulter spoke with Jenny Price about her app.

And my new collective Project 51 is about to go

ASB: Our Malibu Beaches is the first app you produced. Where did you get the idea to use a smartphone app to help people find these beaches?

JP: Not my idea! The credit goes to my partners Ben and John Adair at Escape Apps. I had been working on this issue since the early 2000s–as a writer, and also with my public art collective the LA Urban Rangers–and Ben asked me if I’d like to turn an online guide I’d written into an iPhone app for their Know What series. I hate cell phones–just to be honest–and yet it sounded like a great way to continue to intervene in this issue.

ASB: To crowdfund the app, you mobilized the support of hundreds of individuals, raising more than $32,000 though Kickstarter. Aside from the party invitation and beach towels, what do you think motivated them to participate?

JP: Yes, we used Kickstarter to raise the funds for the Android version, and to be able to offer the app free of charge–and people contributed from all over the country. The beach in general, I think, just really galvanizes very strong feelings about public access. And the Malibu beach access battles just really symbolize the privatization of pubic spaces by affluent Americans–’cause Malibu is *so* affluent, and so celebrity-packed, and has so often been *so* horrible and devious about blocking public access. Though never underestimate the power of a nice beach towel.

Malibu Beach

ASB: When working with the developer on the app’s design, what compromises did you make?

JP: Well, the app is one in a series, and fitting all the info I wanted to include into a set format presented some challenges–e.g. we couldn’t customize icons as much as I wanted to–though ultimately we figured out how to jam it all in there. I wish my picture wasn’t on every page…

ASB: I imagine developing this content meant not only writing, but also research, consultations with the relevant organizinations, fundraising, and publicity. What was the most challenging part?

JP: It was all pretty challenging (and fun)–oodles of research, giving the writing a voice (not just the standard “yay with exclamation points!!” social media voice), doing the Kickstarter and handling the media storm–but I think the most nervewracking part was just to try to get it all *right,* ’cause Malibu beachfront homeowners are a rabidly litigious bunch, and we don’t want to waste our time hanging out with their lawyers. Yay!!!

beachIntro copyASB: How would you describe the app’s impact?

JP: As I said, I’m hardly a mobile phone fan overall–but I have to say that the app has far exceeded my expectations about what it could do. To find and use a public beach in Malibu can require a vast trove of byzantine information, and–lo and behold–this is a technology with which you can cram a ton of byzantine information into a pretty little hand-held portable object.

The app is now hard at work in the world, I think, at three levels. First, people are using the app to enjoy their beaches. We have over 28,000 downloads, and we know folks are using it. Second, it’s generated PR and has served as an advocacy tool: for example, the LA Times ran an editorial on the importance of finally opening up these beaches; public agencies and nonprofits have used it to lobby state legislators; and state legislators and commissioners have contacted the state Coastal Commission to ask for tours of the beaches to see the fake garage doors, fake driveways, illegal signs, etc etc etc for themselves.

And finally, in the long term, the best way to make these public beaches truly public is to finally put the public on them–which, we hope, will change everyone’s perceptions about who owns these lands. For so long, people have thought of the developed beaches–just take a look at the City of Malibu’s website!–as private beaches that the public can use. Why not public beaches with adjacent private sands? It’s difficult to see beaches as public when the public is basically MIA.

ASB: Where public institutions had been stymied, your personal initiative empowers the public to enjoy their legal right to these beaches. How do you see apps’ potential as tools for telling environmental stories or inspiring people to action?

JP: Yes, though huge kudos to several state agencies–the Coastal Commission, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and Coastal Conservancy–that work like tigers to implement and enforce the public access laws. And for our app, the Coastal Commission was an essential partner–and did a mountain of work to get us all the info, to fact-check, to do any PR they could.

I think apps of course do have the power to reach an unusually wide range of people–so I’ve been super pleased with its ability to actually enact the story I’ve long been trying to tell about who owns these lands, and about the importance of public spaces generally.

Though I think you still have to think really, really hard about audience, voice, writing, how much you want or need to control the info, etc. e.g. I think the common assumption is that you need to have a user comments section in the app itself–but that would quickly become an egregious, horrible cesspool in this particular case. You can see that in the comments on the media coverage. Oooowww. User-generated content is a truly bad idea here–for such a contentious issue, and for one where the facts have to be 100% accurate. But the general point is that writing a useful app takes just as much thought and care as writing anything else that really works.

And shout-outs to just a handful of digital projects that I particularly like and I think just put these technologies to fantastic use– Invisible 5, Indeterminate Hikes, New Public Sites, POPOS. And my new collective Project 51 is about to go live with our Play the LA River project, which I hope will be worthy of this list.

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Environmental historian and writer Jenny Price is Barron visiting professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute.

ASB: Tell us about your next projects, including your book, Stop Saving the Planet, Already! Will it have a digital companion?

JP: Oh, interesting question! I have no idea! Maybe… and maybe some tours, a treasure hunt, a film on 50 easy ways to stop saving the frickin’ planet. I don’t know, but something… I’d like to try some other storytelling formats….

 

All photos courtesy of Jenny Price & Escape Apps.

Environmental Humanities and Open Access

On occasion of Open Access Week our friends at the journal Environmental Humanities have asked Andrew Murphie, Dolly Jørgensen, Fred Gibbs and Wilko Hardenberg to answer the following question:

Does open access publishing have a particularly important role to play when it comes to research in the environmental humanities? Why?

Here are a few excerpts from their answers:

“Both EH and OA provide two of the best opportunities for whatever it is we think the academy, scholarly communication or intellectual engagement are/should be remaking themselves to be. They both provide the ideas and means that would allow broad fields of practice such as the humanities to transform themselves, at a time when this is very much needed.” – Andrew Murphie

“I believe environmental humanities scholars are doing extremely timely and relevant research, research that can and should affect contemporary policymaking. Thus, we need to make sure that our research does not disappear behind a non-accessible barrier. Our research needs to be read, and Open Access can serve as a facilitator permitting it to be read.” – Dolly Jørgensen

“Environmental humanities particularly requires open access to scholarship and data because of how local environmental studies can be aggregated to understand much larger and complex ecologies.” – Fred Gibbs

“I believe that there is another component of open access that is often overlooked and might also greatly help to foster better research in the environmental humanities: open access sources and notes. Natural scientists seem well aware of the fact that open raw data and laboratory notes are a pivotal part of a wider movement for open access, but this seems less true for practitioners of the humanities.” – Wilko Hardenberg

Read the full answers on Environmental Humanities’ blog In Conversation and participate in the discussion in their comments section.

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New Media and New Publics: An Example with Polar Bears

Etienne Benson is a historian of science, technology, and environment in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. In this guest post he describes his interactive web-based map plotting publicly available government data about who has applied for polar bear trophy import permits, and its implications.

I know very little about John H. Babin of Media, Pennsylvania — really not much more than the snippets and fragments that one can discover about most people in developed countries in the course of a few minutes on the web. One database of political contributions indicates, perhaps accurately and perhaps not, that he has donated to the campaigns of both Democratic and Republican candidates over the past ten years, and that he has worked in the construction industry. Other websites offer phone numbers, addresses, and background checks, some for free and some for a fee.

It is difficult to know how accurate any of this information is. One thing I do know with some certainty, however, is that sometime before April 22, 2006, Mr. Babin shot and killed a polar bear in the Lancaster Sound region of the Canadian Arctic, most likely with the assistance of an Inuit guide. I know this because is it is in the public record, and it is in the public record because of the peculiar way that the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act was amended in 1994 to allow, for the first time in more than two decades, the skins and skulls of sport-hunted polar bears to be imported to the United States from Canada.

Between 1997 and 2008, Mr. Babin’s name and the names of more than 900 other polar bear hunters appeared in the U.S. Federal Register. They did so because the 1994 amendment to the Act placed permits for sport-hunters in the same regulatory category as permits for scientists and zoos, which meant that the applications were, nominally at least, subject to the same expert review and public comment process that was legally required for other permitted activities. The last of these applications was submitted in 2008, when Ursus maritimus was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and imports were once again banned.

In practice the review process for individual polar bear trophy imports was less rigorous and in most cases much less public than for those for scientific research and public display. There is, moreover, a big difference between “public” and “accessible.” Until recently even the electronic version of the Federal Register, which in hardcopy reaches into the tens of thousands of pages of small print each year, was difficult to search and therefore, in practice, accessible only to the devoted few. Under such conditions the notices that Mr. Babin and his fellow polar bear hunters had submitted permit applications were, even if technically public, effectively invisible.

That has begun to change with the advent of new online tools for accessing regulatory documents. Since 2010 a revamped web interface to the digital version of the Federal Register, launched under the name Federal Register 2.0, has made it easy not only to search for regulatory notices according to a variety of criteria but also to automatically query the database via an Application Programming Interface (API). At the moment, the earliest records accessible in this manner date to 1994, when the Federal Register was first published electronically, but older records may eventually be digitized and included. In the meantime the Federal Register web interface and others like it have simultaneously opened up new technical possibilities and begun to change the visibility — indeed, the very public-ness — of regulatory matters.

One might state this point even more generally: as the media of publication shift, so does the very meaning of “public.” This observation is not limited to the Internet age; it applies just as well to the 1930s, when the distribution of the newly created Federal Register to depository libraries throughout the United States was a critical part of the implementation of the New Deal regulatory state. New laws and regulatory agencies made the Federal Register necessary; in turn, the Federal Register, issued daily and collated each year into increasingly massive volumes, helped make regulatory matters public. Public, that is, for those who had the access, the skills, and the will to read it.

But to get back to polar bears. The great white bears of the north are of interest not merely for their own sake but also because of the symbolic role they have come to play in discussions of global climate change. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list the species as “threatened” in 2008, it was the first time that it had done so primarily on the basis of climate change models — specifically, models that predicted large reductions in Arctic sea ice in the coming decades. Despite widely circulated images of drowning, starving polar bears, most populations are presently in reasonably good condition. It is only in the “foreseeable future” of the coming decades, as made real by climate and population models, that the continued existence of the species is in doubt.

As a result of the listing, projections of the future status of polar bear populations became the focus of a debate that has pitted environmentalists and animal rights activists against sport-hunters and the indigenous hunting guides who, according to Canadian law, must be included in any polar bear hunt. For the moment, he debate over imports seems to have been settled as the result of the 2008 listing and a series of subsequent lawsuits that have been decided in favor of the ban. Nonetheless, it would not be surprising to see the issue of trophy imports re-emerge, either with regard to polar bears or one of the other species that can be legally imported. In any case, legal wrangling over the length to which the U.S. government should and will go to protect polar bears from the effects of climate change continues.

Trophy Source

“Polar Bear Trophy Imports, 1997-2008″ website by Etienne Benson at http://www.etiennebenson.com/trophysource/

Earlier this year I took advantage of the new interface to the Federal Register to create an interactive web-based map that makes it easy to see exactly who applied for polar bear trophy import permits, when they applied, where they lived when they submitted the application, and in which regions in Canada they had killed their polar bears. I conducted this experiment partly out of curiosity about the open government and government 2.0 movements, partly out of a desire to try my hand at coding a map-based web app, and partly for scholarly reasons: I thought that this information might help clarify whether voters in particular regions of the United States were more likely to support the import ban or oppose it.

Those not interested in the technical details can skip to the next paragraph. In the course of previous project, I had already extracted the underlying data for the map by writing a program in Python that used the Federal Register API to automatically download all notices that included the terms “polar bear” or “polar bears.” The program then isolated applications for trophy import permits using regular expressions. This resulted in a spreadsheet-like tabular list of personal names, towns, dates, permit numbers, and source populations. To create the interactive map, I used Javascript and the Leaflet mapping library with OpenStreetMap data. Finally I added some controls to make it possible to click directly on the map for more information about each applicant or to show or hide all of the applications for polar bears from a particular source population. I’ve posted the code for the mapping interface on GitHub under the name TrophySource; the code to extract the underlying data can be found as part of the Polar Bear Feed, which was one of the first apps to take advantage of the Federal Register API.

I had hoped that by mapping the data, and by particularly color-coding the applicants according the source population to which the polar bear belonged, I would discover interesting patterns in space and time that were not visible in tabular format, let alone in the original data as presented in the Federal Register. In fact, no clear patterns emerged. I suspect that one would find them if one dug deeper, but it would probably require aggregating data from other sources or collecting new data oneself. In any case the lack of clear geographic patterns is itself a finding of interest, suggesting that polar bear hunters are scattered broadly across the United States and do not make decisions about where to hunt based on geographical proximity. Support for polar bear hunting, this data suggest, is spread thin but wide.

Although its scholarly significance may be slight, I hope that TrophySource can serve as an example of the uses to which newly available regulatory information might be put. Such data are available for many other regulatory matters, including matters that are subject to intense, ongoing debate. I expect that such data will prove to be useful for historians and social scientists as well as for those who hope to directly influence policy, whether they are sport-hunters or animal rights activists or other special interest groups. Whatever its other effects may be, regulation produces vast amounts of documentation. These texts are clearly biased and limited in many ways, but they can nonetheless be tremendously informative and remain, as of yet, still underutilized by scholars.

One last comment about Mr. Babin, whose digital traces I have taken advantage of for two more or less arbitrary reasons: first, because TrophySource revealed his application to be the one that was geographically closest, at the time of its publication, to my current place of residence; and second, because the name of his place of residence, Media, seemed particularly appropriate to my theme. Earlier this year an American journalist received death threats and national attention after creating a similar map using the publicly available names and addresses of more than 33,000 holders of gun permits in two New York counties. I have not yet reached any firm conclusions about where the border between the technically possible and the ethically acceptable in such matters lies, but I recognize that there are serious discussions to be had about how new media and open government initiatives can radically change the meaning of “public” and “private,” even if the underlying laws and regulations remain unchanged. Transparency is a value that the drafters of the original Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and other environmental legislation of the era held very dear, but it is neither a panacea nor free from its own ethical quandaries.

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#DEHW – Digital Environmental Humanities Workshop at McGill

The Ant Spider Bee editors were all virtually participating (Finn Arne and Wilko through Skype, Kim through a recorded video presentation of the Environment and Society portal) in this workshop at McGill. It seemed like a fascinating event with many great people – some old friends, others new to us. We are happy to see that the digital environmental humanities are growing and hope that we can all be physically present at the next meeting (Skype participation leaves much to be desired, unfortunately). Before we present you with the collection of tweets from the workshop, I would like to invite all the #DEHW participants to submit a short article to Ant Spider Bee – we would most definitely welcome it! Also, the new Canadian Environmental Humanities portal launched at the workshop can be found here: http://digihum.mcgill.ca/ceh

Call me!

Calling the Glacier

This guest post by Dr. Serafine Lindemann presents a digital environmental humanities-themed project by sound artist Kalle Laar, curated by Dr. Lindemann.

Images, static or in motion, are always spatially displaced representations of our reality. Before they can touch us emotionally this intrinsic distance has to be overcome. Sound knows no such barriers. Sounds reach the mind and the subconscious directly. Although this difference seems almost negligible, it is nonetheless essential.

The project series Call me! researches sounding signals of nature phenomena caused by climate change. Telecommunications technology is used to establish a real-time acoustic connection or, if this is technically impossible transmitting the sonic survey of one whole day. For any participant, active calling provides the possibility of individually experiencing locations normally unreachable and mostly neglected by headline news.

Pure information transfer is not the main issue with projects like Calling the Glacier, devoted to the melting ice around the world, or Defroster, focusing on the methane emissions of the permafrost regions in Siberia. Much more important is the individual emotional contact created by listening live to the sounds, unobtruded by any visuals. Activating this perspective in connection with social, political, and scientific aspects is the aim of Call me!

Calling the Glacier is a direct telephone connection to a glacier. A microphone installed on site transmits sounds from nature, directly and without editing, to the caller. You hear flowing water of varying intensity, sporadic cracking and other sounds, which a ‘living glacier’ utters with the change of seasons.

 


In the meantime the reality of climate change has reached a large part of the general public. The glaciers of this planet are a striking symbol of this change. They resemble giant living creatures, which are slowly and in many cases frighteningly quickly shrinking, literally leaking off and disappearing. Calling the Glacier invites the caller to get in touch. Of course, the glacier itself is not in a position to answer, but when a caller makes the decision to dial this number, he will find himself there, in real time, any time, from anywhere. The focus is not on sensational reporting from strange, far-away worlds, but on a personal experience of a process that concerns us all.

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For more information, including a list of related exhibitions, visit http://www.callingtheglacier.org and www.artcircolo.de

 

Glaciers as sensitive indicators of climate change: enhanced water yield from Vernagtferner, Oetztal Alps, Austria

by Dr. Ludwig Braun, Director of the Commission for Glaciology, Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Munich – www.glaziologie.de

The Vernagtferner has been observed carefully since the year 1600, as it had shown numerous rapid advances into the Rofen valley, causing the formation of an ice-dammed lake which often drained catastrophically. The first detailed map of Vernagtferner was drawn in 1889 by S. Finsterwalder, with an accuracy comparable to modern maps, and since then glacier volume changes have been calculated, describing quantitatively the general retreat of this glacier since 1850 due to global warming. These results demonstrate the long history of scientific investigations of glacier behaviour and its relationship to climate conditions in the Ötztal Alps, Austria.

Annual glacier mass balances of the Vernagtferner have been determined by the Commission for Glaciology since 1964 using the direct glaciological method. Precipitation and other climatological variables, as well as discharge have been measured since 1974 at the gauging station “Pegelstation Vernagtbach.” This high alpine basin has an area of 11.4 km2, extends from 2640 m to a maximum elevation of 3630 m, and the glacier area decreased from about 10 km2 (88 %) in 1964  to 8 km2 (70 %) in 2006.

The drastic changes in runoff conditions demonstrate the impact of global change in this high alpine environment, and the monitoring efforts should be continued so that we have the footprint of this global experiment in progress also in the future. It also shows that we are presently living in a period of excess water yield from these high mountain regions, which will eventually fade away if the glaciers should disappear. Most alpine rivers then will run dry during hot summers with scarce precipitation – a situation that we are experiencing already today in the Po River basin, just to name one example.

 

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Ant Spider Bee live from Munich

All the Ant Spider Bee editors, as well as many of our contributors, are now in Munich for the ESEH 2013 conference. It is a happening place, full of activities, meetings, and fabulously interesting people. We are also happy to report that there is quite a lot of twitter activity at the conference, so it is possible to get an overview of what is happening in some of the sessions we are not able to attend (there is just too much going on!). Here we have make a collection of the tweets from the first day at the conference, plus some of the days before the conference, at the #eseh2013 hashtag.

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Floods present and past: Exploring historic precedents through the Arcadia project

This article is contributed by Andreas Grieger, a research associate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society, LMU Munich.

Earlier this summer (in June 2013) Central and parts of Eastern Europe experienced record floodings of some of its major rivers. In Germany, both the Elbe and Danube surpassed their historical flood marks in several locations and cities such as Passau, Grimma, and Magdeburg suffered from major water damage. The same was true for parts of the Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

The Danube, one of Europe’s major connectors, suddenly became a threat to those societies living along its shores. In historic perspective, however, this threat is nothing new. As can be seen in a selection of articles from the Arcadia project, a collaboration between the Rachel Carson Center’s Environment & Society Portal and the European Society for Environmenal History (ESEH), the Danube and its constant floods have shaped and changed human-nature relations for centuries.

A collection of online environmental histories, the Arcadia project aims to broaden our understanding of sites, events, persons, organizations, and species as they relate to both nature and human society. Users can browse these stories by a map or by trace connections via related themes, keywords, and hyperlinks. Arcadia’s engaging histories encompass the entire spectrum of the field of environmental history: from efforts of nature conservation in the world’s national parks, to the rise of global environmental movements, to water histories.

Taking the example of floods. Arcadia presents major floods such as the the Polesine flood of 1951, the North Sea flood of 1953, and the Great Flood of 1962 in Hamburg and offers opportunities to make connections. It also shows how people have learned to adapt to the threats caused by floods.

Especially in Vienna, where the river has always been vital to the city, floods have regularly caused major destruction. In his historic analysis, Severin Hohensinner shows how river regulation since the fourteenth century has gradually moved the Danube away from Vienna, marking the beginning of 500 years of human intervention to protect the city from floods: The struggle with the river: Vienna and the Danube from 1500 to the present. Hohensinner further explores this history of major Danube regulation in his Arcadia case study of Floodplain regulation in Austria’s Machland.

The constant threats posed by Danube floods also led to the development of the first efficient warning measures during the nineteenth century. In his contribution Disaster ahead: How Danube floods created telegraph networks, Michael Neundlinger looks at how the introduction of wide-reaching telegraph networks enabled Habsburg authorities in Vienna to protect the most important city of the empire.

If you would like to contribute an Arcadia article on floods or any other subject relating to both nature and human society, please contact us. Contributions should be 300-500 words and will be peer reviewed prior to publication by members of the Arcadia editorial board. For more information on how to contribute visit us online or email us at arcadia [at] carsoncenter.lmu.de.

 

Screenshot of Arcadia Project, Environment & Society Portal. Thumbnail image of painting by Leander Russ (1847): Viennese city dwellers get rescued after massive floodings in 1847. All rights reserved © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria, Vienna, used in Arcadia with permission.

Andreas Grieger is a research associate at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society, LMU Munich.

 

 

Call for Papers: The Digital / Environmental Humanities Nexus: Challenges and Opportunities

A collaborative special issue of Environmental Humanities by the Environment and Society Portal / Rachel Carson Center (LMU, Munich) and the Environmental Humanities Editorial Team

Edited by: Kimberly Coulter, Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, Emily O’Gorman and Thom van Dooren

Digital humanities projects are redrawing the boundaries of the humanities. They allow researchers to gather more data than ever before, analyze it from different perspectives, and share scholarship with expanding audiences in innovative ways. At the same time the “digital turn” is opening up new areas of inquiry related to the ethics and politics of access to information and resources.

This special issue of Environmental Humanities aims to reflect on intersections between digital and environmental humanities from a variety of perspectives. We hope this collection will enrich understandings of the extent to which digital technologies and resources are informing current environmental humanities scholarship, while also identifying opportunities and challenges that these new tools present.

We invite original conceptual and empirical papers addressing any of the following topics:

  • connections between digital and environmental humanities;
  • reflection on specific digital resources for environmental scholarship (e.g., archives and databases);
  • analysis of digital methods applied to environmental humanities research (e.g., text mining, spatial analysis, statistics);
  • connections between political ecological/environmental discourses and the ethics and politics of digital access;
  • reflections from humanities perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of the digital representation of environmental data;
  • the role of new media and digital communities in fostering the debate on environmental challenges;
  • digital publications on environmental topics: as a way to reach a wider public or their role in the promotion/tenure process.

We look forward to your contributions on these or other topics relevant to the intersections of digital and environmental humanities.

For more information, please visit the Environmental Humanities website.