Google Mapping Climate Responses: Crowds vs. Complexity

I'm getting close to the end of two months of research here in South Africa. I head out next Wednesday, and I will miss the fantastic people I have learnt from while I've been here. Looking back over the past two months, three interlinked issues have come up again and again:
  • the limited capacity of local and national government to manage climate change initiatives,
  • the huge communication barriers that separate possible collaborators,
  • and the difficulty of getting an overall picture of what is going on because of the sheer variety of work both inside and outside of government channels.
I suspect the situation is the same regardless of whether you are on the coast of the Indian Ocean or on the shores of the Great Lakes. Google map hacks are one possible way for us to get a handle on these challenges.

DEAT (the South African national environmental agency) has decided to use a collaborative Google map platform (the NCCRD) to make this complex situation easier to navigate. The site has been up and running for a bit less than a month, so these are still early days. All the same, I am excited by the possibilities. There are various shades of sustainability mapping out there (see links below), but to my knowledge this is the first one set up by a national government.

The agency has recognized that they don't have the ability to monitor and report on all the current climate change related projects. Instead, following web 2.0 principles that have made sites like Wikipedia such a success, they've designed a setup that allows users to log their own adaptation, mitigation or research projects. All of these are mapped out across the country, and the aggregated data is used to automatically generate an impressive array of constantly updated reports. They cover anything from the total level of ghg reductions to the distribution of research across different sectors. ( A short registration is required to access the full system)

In return for providing their information, project managers get to network with each other, publicize their work and advertise projects in need of funding. It is totally dependant on a mixture of a desire for recognition, the need to secure project partners and the appeal of professional networking. But if we've seen anything on the internet over the past few years, it's been that when you provide a good platform for people to generate content, they deliver.

By its nature, climate change exceeds the bounds of what our established systems can do. It's a slippery cross-cutting problem that doesn't sit well within the responsibilities of any one agency or government office. It's also inspired a whole variety of independent projects carried out by NGOs, community groups and private companies. In that kind of situation, embracing wiki-style collaborative information sharing more than makes sense; it may be the only way to go. The resources that you would need to track all these projects from one central point would be huge. In the early stages, centralized monitoring is also likely to be beyond the reach of state agencies already struggling with limited resources.

The quality of data is clearly going to be a concern. At the launch of the NCCRD, the team pointed out that a project they had yet to locate was skewing results so badly that South Africa appeared to be offsetting the entire world's annual emissions!

Glaring errors like that are easy to spot. But users themselves can ensure a deeper level of quality control by flagging projects they know to have been cancelled, or commenting on the current status of initiatives that they have been following. If you have ever started a new entry on Wikipedia, you know how gruelling this kind of community editorial control can be.

My one criticism is that the NCCRD team has only gone half way with the web 2.0 approach. As it stands, there is no interface that allows users to comment on projects that appear in the database. So while they have harnessed the crowd to provide information, they have cut it off from being able to help keep it current and reliable. I mentioned this to Lisa Constable (of ERM) at the launch, and Lisa if you are reading I'd love to know what your thoughts are a month down the line.

I will be watching how the databases evolves. It's a tool that can serve cities just as well as countries. And it could also very well be the way we collectively manage a problem whose scope is pushing us to find new ways of knowing and organizing both ourselves and our understanding of the world.

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This is a short list of some other mapping projects that I particularly like. (thxs to worldchanging.com for a few of these):

Greenmap.org provides a standardized suite of google map tools and icons for community based sustainability mapping.

David Tryse has an excellent collection of Google Earth rederings of various environmental disruptions.


Urban Edibles is a collaborative map of guerilla food gardening in Ghent (Belgium)
http://urbanedibles.blogspot.com


LessCarbonMoreJobs.com, put together by the U.S. Environmental Defence Fund provides an interactive map of companies that will be helped by climate legislation. (see http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//009580.html )


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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