iSeeChange Flips the Script on Top-Down Climate Reporting

schwarzLocalore producer Julia Kumari Drapkin is keeping a keen eye on the seasons. While tracking shifts in the weather has always been important for her work as an environmental reporter, with the iSeeChange project, seasonal transitions now also mark her production deadlines.

In Paonia, Colorado, where Drapkin is partnering with station KVNF, disruptions in climate patterns also translate into pressing business decisions. Spring has come early, yet frosts are still possible. Drapkin interviewed farmer Jeff Schwartz of Delicious Orchards, pictured above, who spent one late night setting bonfires under cherry trees to protect the blossoms. 

"Is it a totally different pattern that's going to make fruit farming this close to these mountains not feasible?" he asks. (Listen here.)

Drapkin's goal is to match ground-level observers such as Schwartz with scientists who are examining broader weather patterns. "The challenge of climate change is localizing it," she says. "Without community stories there's no way to do that." 

But her project doesn't begin with the assumption that dire climate change predictions are on point—in fact, Drapkin is actively seeking local skeptics to participate. "iSeeChange is a community dialogue," she explains in an on-air introduction to the project "it's not a debate."

dog in snowDrapkin's approach flips the script on environmental reporting methods, which usually solicit local anecdotes in the service of larger studies or trends. Instead, locals' questions will drive the topics of Drapkin's reporting, and inform which scientists she seeks out. The hope is that the process will help listeners both understand their own experiences with the weather, and take pride in the region's natural resources.

Over the past month, the iSeeChange team has been testing different approaches for recruiting participants. Social media may not be the first line of outreach for many locals, Drapkin has learned, although a Facebook page is serving as the project's active hub as she works with her team to build the project site. Mobile may not be the ticket either; she is finding that older contributors may still prefer email or voicemail. She's trying out a variety of face-to-face engagement tactics—establishing a regular circuit of site visits, setting up shop at community hubs, and posting promotional materials in heavily trafficked spots, like the routes between the post office and the bank. She's also set an afternoon appointment for herself every day to take a photo of the same spot.

Apathy is not the issue. "Citizens are really engaged here," says Drapkin. "For a very small town, it feels like my dance card is always full." Instead, it's trying to figure out where and when people are naturally sparking up conversations about ecological issues. There's an active Facebook conversation about fracking that she's been able to tap into, for example, and an Earth Day river cleanup earlier this week offered a good opportunity for meeting people.

At the same time, Drapkin is working to connect an international community of scientists with iSeeChange, using tools such as Skype and Twitter. As the questions and stories build, she will also work with technology partner Zeega to build multimedia tools for mapping them over time. This will support extrapolating larger trends from individual submissions, and perhaps feeding the information into larger citizen science projects, such as the National Phenology Network. The team's inspiration for their project site comes from farmers' almanacs—an earlier and often beautiful form of time-based, crowdsourced data.

Drapkin is a seasoned multimedia reporter, but with iSeeChange, she's learning to master yet another level of project management. "I feel like I'm launching a small business, being a community organizer, reporting, producing and learning social media all at the same time," she says. But she's up for the challenge, and so is KVNF. "We're at a small station so we have room to experiment in ways a bigger station can't," she says.

Check back in the coming months to see what they're able to invent together—and tune into KVNF on Friday to hear an answer to Jeff's question.

Update: 

Drapkin's piece on the early spring blooms is now online. Listen:

 

Photo credits: 
Warming the cherry trees, Jeff Schwartz of Delicious Orchards
Dog and blossoms, submitted via Facebook by Alison Gannett of Holy Terror Farm 

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