The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Julia Drapkin, chief executive officer of ISeeChange, a climate change monitoring organization based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Drapkin discussed how citizen science can be a valuable tool for augmenting official sources of climate data and the importance of combining subjective narratives with hard data to convey the impacts of climate change.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Joshua New: ISeeChange has three main tools focused on encouraging citizen science and crowdsourced data collection on weather and climate issues. Could you explain how these work?
Julia Drapkin: At ISeeChange we believe communities are stronger when they are connected to each other and their changing environment. Our tools are focused on empowering communities to document climate and weather impacts together, so as the climate changes us and our daily lives, we are better able to adapt along with it.
The ISeeChange Almanac is our signature platform for citizens to post sightings about what they notice changing in the environment and to document the impacts. Each sighting on the Almanac is synced with weather and climate data and broadcast to the community to investigate bigger picture climate trends. As trends emerge, ISeeChange reports on the stories and science behind them, often beating out mainstream news or government reports. The Almanac is rooted in the idea that we are all experts in our own backyards and communities; at the end of the day, each community member has their own go-to records, year to year, of what changed and what the impacts were.
The ISeeChange Tracker app, is a collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and designed to complement data from earth-observation satellites. Community members follow specific investigations over time and help “ground truth” details that earth observation satellites can’t see from space. The iOS app and soon to be released Android version are open to other citizen science efforts to ground truth remote sensing data and our team is available to help.
And finally, just last year, we launched ISeeChange Community Investigations. These aim to empower communities to develop their own baseline data and participate in adaptation decisions, like green infrastructure or stormwater management. The Harlem Heat pilot (described below) was our first and the entire team is thrilled by the results of this work so far.
New: How do you ensure that the data you collect from unofficial sources is accurate and reliable?
Drapkin: There’s an old saying in science that “in my experience” is the opposite of data. But in the 21st century that’s no longer is the case. Crowdsourcing itself is a form of data verification and ISeeChange has several features to ensure accuracy and reliability. First we invite our members via email to verify other sightings in their communities. Then, all sightings are geotagged and synced to remote sensing and weather data, providing an additional layer of validation. Finally, ISeeChange teams of scientists and journalists get in touch with community members to directly verify their sightings if we think it’s something worth investigating further. In the case of specific investigations, we work directly with scientists and communities to ensure the project is designed well.
New: Can you describe the Harlem Heat Project?
Drapkin: ISeeChange partnered with the community of Harlem, the environmental nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the journalism initiative Adapt NY, the radio station WNYC, and City College of New York to explore how urban communities are adapting to increased risk of extreme heat. Heat is climate change’s silent killer: more people die from extreme heat in the United States than almost every other natural disaster combined. But it’s really hard to measure, especially indoors. So for eight weeks, thirty residents kept temperature and humidity sensors inside their homes. As we gathered data, we also asked residents to help describe the conditions they experienced and share their stories on ISeeChange.org.
The results were astounding: indoor temperatures inside un-air conditioned apartments were up to 7 degrees hotter this summer than outdoor temperatures. Plus the indoor heat doesn’t cool immediately, so we’re doing heat advisories all wrong. Then add the stories: the community members told us about the surprising ways they cope with hot days and nights; how difficult it is to get air conditioning in public housing; and how they really don’t use the air-conditioned rooms open to the public to cool down because they’re hard to find and awkward to use, especially at night. The project culminated in a collaborative workshop to brainstorm solutions, such as an early warning system or green roofs—solutions that we are currently looking to support in a second season for Harlem Heat to investigate.
New: Why is combining sensor data and other “hard” data sources with social media data and more subjective, narrative-style information so important?
Drapkin: When it comes to climate change, there’s a lot of important decisions we’re all going to have to make as individuals, neighborhoods, and communities. To date, the case to make those decisions is largely communicated in terms of data alone: hockey stick line graphs, maps with bleeding reds or blues, and other difficult-to-interpret media with dire impact messages that we should all be paying attention to everyday. But we aren’t.
One of the reasons is that the human brain doesn’t make decisions using data and logic alone. Decision making, at least at the individual level, occurs in both halves of our brain, accessing both emotions and memories alongside logic and reason. In other words, when it comes to buying information, data is only one side of the coin. We need the other side—the narratives about impact and experience—alongside data to buy the climate information we need to make decisions. ISeeChange is designed to bridge the gap.
New: As sensor technology in smartphones and other consumer technology becomes more advanced, what other kinds of data do you hope iSeeChange can help collect that would be valuable for studying climate change?
Drapkin: Human beings, in our own ways, are sensors and ISeeChange seeks to support those human-sensed experience, or stories, with data. So yes, we’ll be working more with smart phones. Both the sensors inside phones as well as the sensors that you can attach to them will be valuable for climate change records. Temperature, humidity, air quality, evapotranspiration, and flood sensors are all amazing opportunities. Cars are going to be, and already are, amazing places to put sensors, as is the city infrastructure itself. Rural farmers are doing some amazing sensing experiments too. ISeeChange aims to be the connective tissue—the nervous system if you will—that can empower and engage 21st Century climate-smart citizens in this kind of communal sensing. And we’re learning how to do it better every single day.