Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable

This post is re-blogged from New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. You may find the original piece here, posted on April 21, 2016. 

The author of the article, Louise Lief, is a former Wilson Center fellow and current scholar-in-residence at the American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

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Higher release of iron is evident in the Flint water glass reactor containing iron than that with Detroit water (Photo courtesy of FlintWaterStudy.org)

A couple of weeks ago, the task force Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed to investigate Flint’s now infamous water crisis issued its long-awaited report.

The findings detailed failures in multiple government agencies to address high levels of lead, a neurotoxin, in the city’s water. To cut costs, in the spring of 2014 Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager had switched the city’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the more polluted Flint River and kept it there, despite community protests, for 18 months.

Calling the crisis “a clear case of environmental injustice,” the task force issued 44 recommendations that will cost millions to implement. The long-term damage to many Flint children is irreversible.

The hidden success story in this disheartening tale of denial and indifference was the collaboration of an ad hoc coalition of journalists, citizens, and academics whose combined efforts finally compelled the state of Michigan to act. “Without their courage and persistence,” the report noted, “this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.”

As New Jersey and Ohio have discovered, lead’s story doesn’t end in Flint. There are an estimated 10 million lead service lines in the U.S., part of the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure that will require an estimated $1 trillion to rehabilitate.

As other communities wonder what perils they face, the Flint collaboration offers a road map on how to tackle environmental and other problems when government fails to act, especially for the most vulnerable communities.

Continue reading “Flint Offers Lessons on How Citizen Collaboration Can Hold Governments Accountable”

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Citizen Science and the Flint Water Crisis

 

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LeeAnne Walters shows Dr. Marc Edwards a used filter that was filled with rust after seven days of use (Photo courtesy of FlintWaterStudy.org)

In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan decided to switch its water supply source from the Detroit water system to a cheaper alternative, the Flint River. But in exchange for the cheaper price tag, the Flint residents paid a greater price with one of the worst public health crises of the past decade.

Despite concerns from Flint citizens about the quality of the water, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality repeatedly attributed the problem to the plumbing system. It was 37-year-old mother of four, LeeAnne Walters who, after noticing physical and behavioral changes in her children and herself, set off a chain of events that exposed the national scandal. Eventually, with the support of Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech (VT), Walters discovered lead concentration levels of 13,200 parts per billion in her water, 880 times the maximum concentration allowed by law and more than twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers to be hazardous waste. Continue reading “Citizen Science and the Flint Water Crisis”

Digital Humanitarian Technology and Knowledge Politics

Technologies are usually developed to accomplish a handful of tasks, while mapping technologies are usually made to represent only a limited number of things. While they are being developed, and afterward when they evolve,developers make decisions to allow some things to be mapped — and, by consequence, others to be excluded. These decisions are usually made after some deliberation. These are knowledge politics: The struggle for how knowledge will come to be included or excluded in technologies. This line of thinking has a long tradition that shows how values, biases and norms come to be embedded in technologies.

In my article in the January issue of Geoforum, “Moments of Closure in the Knowledge Politics of Digital Humanitarianism,” I examine four moments when digital humanitarian technologies took one such development path over any others. I explore when there was a deliberation about how digital humanitarian technology should develop/evolve and look at the possible effects of those decisions.

These moments often occur in passing, without people considering the full impacts of such everyday decisions. After looking at these four moments, I argue that digital humanitarian technologies right now privilege a particular worldview that reflects the contexts in which the technologies evolve. This inclusion/exclusion is contested by those seeking more comprehensive inclusion of knowledge. Continue reading “Digital Humanitarian Technology and Knowledge Politics”

Connecting Grassroots to Government Podcast #5: Michael Frank Goodchild

Editor’s note: In September 2012, the Commons Lab hosted the Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management workshop. Over two days, we spoke with a number of event participants for a series of video podcasts covering various aspect of the proceedings. Additional installments will be posted in the coming weeks. The workshop summary report is available here.

In this podcast, Michael Frank Goodchild talks about major improvements he sees taking place over the next decade in relation to social media and disaster response, particularly how diverse, web-based data streams could be cleaned up and synthesized. With new technologies, Goodchild hopes for “a means to turn a whole lot of stuff into a complete picture.” Goodchild further talks about data quality issues surrounding this information.

Goodchild, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of California-Santa Barbara and an affiliate professor of geography at the University of Washington, was formerly director the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis.

We spoke with Goodchild at the Connecting Grassroots to Government workshop in September 2012.

Connecting Grassroots to Government Podcast #4: Kate Starbird

Editor’s note: In September 2012, the Commons Lab hosted the Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management workshop. Over two days, we spoke with a number of event participants for a series of video podcasts covering various aspect of the proceedings. Additional installments will be posted in the coming weeks. The workshop summary report is available here.

We caught up with Kate Starbird at the Digital Grassroots to Government workshop in September 2012 to talk about public engagement during emergency situations.

Starbird, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington and director of the Emerging Capacities of Mass Participation Laboratory, is particularly qualified to tackle this subject considering her work looking at large- and small-scale group online interaction related to mass crises and disasters. In this podcast, Starbird discusses talks the operational and technical challenges to engaging volunteers and the public during emergency situations. Continue reading “Connecting Grassroots to Government Podcast #4: Kate Starbird”

NEW REPORT: Connecting Grassroots and Government for Disaster Response

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Leaders in disaster response are finding it necessary to adapt to a new reality. Although community actions have always been the core of the recovery process, collective action from the grassroots has changed response operations in ways that few would have predicted. Using new tools that interconnect over expanding mobile networks, citizens can exchange information via maps and social media, then mobilize thousands of people to collect, analyze, and act on that information. Sometimes, community-sourced intelligence may be fresher and more accurate than the information given to the responders who provide aid.

The Commons Lab has released Connecting Grassroots and Government for Disaster Response, a new report by Public Policy Scholar John Crowley that explores approaches to the questions that commonly emerge when building an interface between the grassroots and government agencies, with a particular focus on the accompanying legal, policy, and technology challenges.

Also see the companion report from our September 2012 workshop, written by Ryan Burns and Lea Shanley, as well as a series of videos from the workshop and podcasts with workshop participants.

Connecting Grassroots to Government Podcast #3: Aiden Riley Eller

Editor’s note: In September 2012, the Commons Lab hosted the Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management workshop. Over two days, we spoke with a number of event participants for a series of video podcasts covering various aspect of the proceedings. Additional installments will be posted in the coming weeks. The workshop summary report is available here.

Aiden Riley Eller, the vice president of technology and security at CoCo Communications Group in Seattle, has contributed to the development and implementation of myriad software security measures, including the security-testing service ClickToSecure Cloud.

In this podcast, Eller discusses the security challenges facing government agencies using social media and raises some of the concerns about the unintended consequences of widely sharing information via these channels.

Further, Eller makes the point that the it is very difficult for an agency to maintain a useful voice over social media if it is seen as a secondary activity. “Stale data [and] stale information . . . are very dangerous for people relying on them,” he says.

Commons Lab Hits the Airwaves

On Tuesday, September 17 at 12:15 p.m. CT, Lea Shanley, director of the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson Center, will appear on The Peggy Smedley Show to discuss the role of social media in disaster response, as well as some of the recent reports issued by the program.

The interview will be broadcast on The Peggy Smedley Show website and archived episodes are available here. The Peggy Smedley Show focuses on the use of connected devices and broadcasts live every Tuesday at 12 noon CT on wsRadio.com. Be sure to tune in!

The most recent report from the Commons Lab, “Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management: Workshop Summary,” discusses the key findings, policy suggestions, and success stories that emerged during last September’s workshop looking at social media in government disaster management. The report can be found here.

NEW REPORT: Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management

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The growing use of social media and other mass collaboration technologies is opening up new opportunities in disaster management efforts, but is also creating new challenges for policymakers looking to incorporate these tools into existing frameworks, according to our latest report.

The Commons Lab, part of the Wilson Center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program, hosted a September 2012 workshop bringing together emergency responders, crisis mappers, researchers, and software programmers to discuss issues surrounding the adoption of these new technologies.

We are now proud to unveil “Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management: Workshop Summary,” a report discussing the key findings, policy suggestions, and success stories that emerged during the workshop. The report’s release coincides with the tenth annual Disaster Preparedness Month, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Department of Homeland Security to help educate the public about preparing for emergencies.
Continue reading “NEW REPORT: Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management”

NEW REPORT: Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters

priv_imgSeveral recent natural disasters have illustrated the need for humanitarian groups, volunteers and policymakers to understand privacy issues when searching for missing persons in the aftermath of these crises.

The Commons Lab and the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) at Fordham Law School have teamed up on a new report looking at these legal and policy issues. The report, “Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters,” can be found online here.

From the press release:

The report offers a roadmap to the legal and policy issues surrounding privacy and missing persons following natural disasters. It provides strategies that humanitarian organizations, private sector organizations, volunteers and policymakers can pursue to help those affected by major natural disasters.  For example, the report recommends that the United States government exercise existing legal authority to support appropriate sharing of personal information about missing persons following natural disasters.  More broadly, the report recommends that those developing technologies to share information about missing persons implement design principles that carefully balance privacy consistent with existing legal obligations. The report also calls on privacy policy makers, legislators, and regulators to take steps to clarify how privacy rules apply to missing persons activities in identified key areas so that missing persons activities can proceed without the threat of legal liability. Continue reading “NEW REPORT: Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters”