iSeeChange Documents Roller Coaster Summer, Ramps Up to Launch of Digital Farmer’s Almanac

Summer officially ends today, and in Paonia, Colorado, it has been an unpredictable ride. First arid, stifling, and pest-ridden, and then topped off with monsoons that helped to rescue flagging crops—these are some of the ground-level conditions that residents like Mark Trujillo in the video above have observed for iSeeChange this season.

A participatory environmental reporting project led by Julia Kumari Drapkin at KVNF, iSeeChange flips the script by surfacing story topics from users' weather observations, and then tapping scientists to explain the whys and hows. Notably, this bottom-up sourcing has foreshadowed some of the nation's biggest recent weather stories—weeks and sometimes even months in advance:

  • Fire: In April, Hotchkiss Fire District Chief Doug Fritz texted iSeeChange's hotline on the way home from a wildfire he thought was oddly early in the season—so unseasonal that it was doused by snow. Drapkin followed up on the tip—listen to the story here—which preceded the larger fires that erupted in May and early June.
  • Heat and Drought: An April text about drought was the first of several iSeeChange reports on the unusually warm and dry summer—listen to this piece on water stress to get a sense of the high stakes for farmers. At Paonia's July Cherry Days festival, Drapkin spoke with Trujillo and other residents who expressed concern —for good reason. Since 1895, this was Colorado’s hottest summer on record, and the hottest 15 months on record for the U.S.
     
  • Mosquitoes: A June text from Amber Kleinman wondered about the mosquitoes that were swarming in her garden a month earlier than usual. On air, Ken Norstrom of the Delta County Health Department confirmed that not only were there more mosquitoes appearing earlier, and their breeding pools were testing positive for West Nile Virus. As Drapkin reported, the mosquito-borne virus has been spotted in record-breaking numbers across the country this year.

These examples reveal the promise of involving audience members to provide telling accounts about what’s happening in their own backyards well before climate reporters clue in. "We're talking about the issues before they become big problems," Drapkin says.

iSeeChange submissionBut not all iSeeChange news is bad news. In August, the team turned their attention to “critters,” asking listeners for submissions about what wildlife they were seeing, such as the photo sent in by Andrew Cranson at left. Drapkin drew both scientists and residents in to take part in KVNF’s lighthearted hour-long call-in show on the topic, featuring riffs on roadkill, horny toads, bear sightings and more.

For KVNF, iSeeChange offers an opportunity to engage and inform listeners more and more deeply around important community topics. For scientists, it's a chance to connect and gather the kind of grounded data they need to understand larger trends. And for listeners, it's a chance to contribute, and to talk with one another about topics that shape their lives. See this "Anatomy of a Story" slideshow for a deeper dive into how this process played out in Drapkin's reporting on rain.

Opening Up the Almanac

The iSeeChange team spent much of the summer in R&D mode, testing out various online, mobile and face-to-face strategies for gathering submissions. Along the way, they discovered a small but passionate community of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, recreationists and others who are already keeping notes about the weather in the margins of calendars and the backs of envelopes, and welcome the chance to compare them. Working with Localore's interactive storytelling partners Zeega, Drapkin landed upon a promising interface for aggregating and sharing these "sees"—a crowsdsourced online almanac.

For centuries, almanacs worldwide have served as one-stop guides for planting and astronomical data, day-to-day living tips, and community lore. Drapkin has been pondering their value since college, when she worked with a team of anthropologists to research the origins and uses of the Madrid Codex, a fifteenth-century illustrated Mayan manuscript that tracked key seasonal and religious dates.
 
black boxThe forthcoming iSeeChange almanac is notable for its community focus and open design. Almanac editors have famously guarded their weather prediction methods, hiding behind jokey forecaster pen names such as "Caleb Weatherbee"—or even, in the case of the Old Farmer's Almanac, locking the formula up in a black box. While their forecasts have grown more scientific, they’ve remained proprietary.

In contrast, iSeeChange will transparently explore emerging weather trends, through a combination of participants' submissions, layered with up-to-date climate and emergency feeds that will help place the local information in a global context. Drapkin is even in conversation with NASA to see if there are ways to incorporate remote sensing data. 

Users will be able to browse this data month-by-month, season-by-season, by emotion, or by type of contributor: ranchers, gardeners, scientists, etc. Designed by Civic Center and developed by Zeega, the site will allow users to submit text, audio, video and photo reports on what they're noticing, and to comment on one another's posts.

Drapkin unveiled the designs for the almanac last week at an event featuring Colorado state climatologist Noland Doeskin, who has become a repeat iSeeChange source and was on hand to answer weather questions. Attendees responded to the site wireframes enthusiastically, and are excited to start posting. In some ways, Drapkin says, "the technology is almost irrelevant—the most important thing is working with a community that cares. Together, we discovered that there was a service to provide and stories to tell in whole new ways. "

Visit iSeeChange on Facebook for news about the almanac's launch, and check this blog regularly for updates on all 10 Localore projects.

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