Oil Reporter AppAs most readers are aware I am originally from New Olreans, my relocation to Cincinnati occurred only a touch over a year ago. As a result I have the majority of my social circle there in addition to almost 300 years of family history. That is why it breaks my heart to see the entire Gulf Coast suffering this slow motion disaster.

Four and a half years ago our levees failed (Katrina had passed us over quite a bit earlier), and many of us began to use the relatively new technology of blogging to share info, find friends, navigate the FEMA paperwork labyrinth, etc. In the intervening time technology has advanced like a greyhound on meth giving us a vast array of social media tools with which we can share information and try to make a positive impact.

If you live near , or are soon travelling to, the Gulf Coast and you own an iPhone or Droid then you can help. You see, as people are fond of saying, there’s an app for that. Here is a quick excerpt from Andy Carvin’s announcement about it on NPR:

CrisisCommons, a coalition of volunteer software developers that I’ve been involved with since the Haiti Earthquake,rolled out the Oil Reporter app yesterday. Available for free on both iPhone and Android phones, the app is a simple interface for people who encounter oil along the Gulf Coast. Oil Reporter lets-you to snap a picture of the oil or tar ball, describe the context and offer additional details regarding wildlife and wetlands impact. When you submit your report, the app detects your location using your phone’s GPS, so your report can be pinpointed on a map.

The data collected through Oil Reporter, which will be curated and managed by San Diego State University’s Visualization Center, is open for anyone to access and use to create their own visualizations or analysis. CrisisCommons and the university are also inviting organizations to request specific visualizations, as well as custom versions of the app containing new data fields relevant to their oil spill related response activities.

There’s more on the way, Crisis Commons is doing some bang up work on digital response to this disaster. Look for more announcements here or pick up their RSS Feed.

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Oil Spill? Ask An Expert

As a native of the Gulf Coast I’ve been watching in horror as events unfold around the British Petroleum disaster. It’s been especially hard to watch from halfway across the country here in Ohio.

One thing that helps as I try to make sense of things, much as I did when the levees failed five years ago, is finding trusted sources for information. Down on the coast I’ve got all of the NOLA Bloggers so I am confident of the info from the ground there. The big picture is harder to get a handle on.

Then it hit me, when I was still working for Patron Saint Productions I worked with Steve LeVine on the campaign for his book The Oil and the Glory. Who better to go to than an industry expert?

In short order he got back to me and shot over a link to his latest piece on The New Republic. I highly advise it for those trying to get an idea of how things are spinning out within the industry. For instance take this excerpt talking about BP CEO Tony Hayward:

Hayward is not known to be a gruff oilman. Yet his slow and defensive public response to the April 20 rig explosion has dismayed many oil and p.r. industry veterans who say that BP lost control of public perceptions virtually from the outset. Its first corporate statement after the explosion was a link to a press release from Transocean, the Swiss-based operator of the rig from which BP’s Macondo well was being drilled. And then, for almost two weeks, neither Hayward nor any other London-based executives got in front of the cameras on the scene to explain what they were doing and would do about the spill. When Hayward finally did, the British oil executive seemed intent on conveying only one crucial point—that, unlike a string of accidents in BP-run operations going back five years, this one was not inflicted directly by his company’s personnel. He bristled at comparisons with a deadly 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas. Yet, given the typically intense oversight exercised by Big Oil over important contractor-run projects such as Macondo, Hayward might as well have suggested that aliens seized control of the rig. The overall impression was that of an out-of-control catastrophe in which the company’s CEO was attempting to fob off responsibility to a no-name contractor.

You can check out the full article, Tanking Hard for more insightful commentary. His industry analysis is great stuff, and this is an event whose repurcutions will affect us all as they unfold.

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KdVFlameOUtEvents of the past twenty-four hours have given me an interesting case study in the use of social media as a device for real time reporting. You see back in New Orleans there is a Krewe, a Mardi Gras parading organization, called the Krewe du Vieux. Yesterday their den, where the floats are stored between Carnivals, caught fire.

A local blogger, NOLA Slate, fired off an email which gave me the sart of this post on HumidCity which was the first appearance of the news online. Shortly thereafter krewe members started throwing out pics and info via Facebook which I used as the first updates to the main post. For example this image of the firemen you see was sent to me by New Orleans based photographer Charlotte Diem via Facebook.

It was not until after the second update that anything in the way of mainstream media were able to get anything out. So from four states away I was able, due to my network across a variety of platforms to keep pretty close to real time and get the news out to a wide audience to whom it was pertinent. This audience, since it is in reality a community, then responded with additional info as well as the commentary and discussion.

Thanks to a wide network on the ground I was able to get the story out before anyone else, all from four states away in Cincinnati, OH. This is why you build a community rather than worry about how many followers you have on twitter. Like all things in life it’s about quality not quantity. It does not matter if you have  a billion people in your network if none of them are really listenting.

This is a brief example, on a smaller scale than Iran/Twitter, of the practical application of social media for general reporting and citizen journalism. The era of smart phones is accelerating the process. I know that I have real time access to all my social media platforms, my wordpress blogs, and the ability to record and post audio directly to a blog or to twitter all at my fingertips. Why? I have an iPhone and apps.

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Ready or not, the fourth annual Rising Tide conference will be on Saturday August 22 at the Zeitgeist Theatre in the Central City area of New Orleans.

Originally launched by members of the NOLA Blogger community on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the Great Levee Failure of ’05, I’ve watched this conference grow every year since. If you have any interest in New Orleans, disaster recovery, or the use of digital and social media for the common good then you should check it out.

If you’d like to read some of the posts made about last years event here are a few pertinent links for your perusal:

Cliff’s Crib
Pistolette on the Education Panel
Suspect Device
Varg at The Chicory
Deidra of G-Bitch
Tim promises more to come
We Could Be Famous
Michael Tisserand on Gambit’s BlogOfNewOrleans
Oyster on John Barry
Tim’s Nameless Blog

Rising Tide is a non-profit effort of the NOLA Blogging community. If you are unable to attend but wish to support the efforts there is a paypal button on the website that you can use to make a donation.

More details on this year’s confernce coming soon.

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Gmail: Five Years Later

stbernard-houseFive years ago today Gmail debuted. Like many I viewed it as yet another web based email system and had little interest. Web mail had always been a clunky pain in the behind, useful when travelling but that was about it.

By the time July 2005 had arrived I was playing with it out of curiosity. To my surprise it was actually a good interface, not annoying at all. Then came that fateful August of 2005. Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure that followed forced my wife (then fiancee) and I to evacuate New Orleans, heading North with our five cats, a laptop and little else.

Just before leaving I blasted my entire contact list with a message to use the Gmail account until further notice. Little did I realize that further notice would never come. Over the next six weeks Gmail was our lifeline. As friends and family members turned up scattered across the US we were able to get back in touch. Three weeks after the storm I finally found out that my grandmother was alive and in Texas. Six weeks after the storm we returned to a mostly deserted New Orleans.The introduction of useful and efficient web-mail could not have come at a better time.

Gmail was the first large scale application of Ajax, and led directly to the evolution of a lot of the social media online today. Since it was opened up to the general public in February of 2007 it seems as though everyone has a Gmail address. It, like its parent search engine, seems to have become ubiquitous.

To me the significance will always be that in the days when social media was limited to blogs, Gmail was our lifeline.

Happy Birthday Gmail! And that’s no April Fools joke.

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Essay by Daisy Pignetti, November 28, 2008 in response to Principles of a New Media Literacy, published by the Publius Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

lokiIn 2006 I wrote a piece about the burgeoning New Orleans blogosphere for the launch of Placeblogger.com. The crux of that essay, and of the site itself, was to call attention to the value of local voices when representing the lived experience of a particular place. I argued that after witnessing the breakdown of communications on local, state, and federal government levels, not to mention the loss of composure on the part of the news anchors and talking heads, there was no better way to raise awareness of the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans than through alternative media genres. Now approaching the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the list of NOLA bloggers has grown to over 300, representing a myriad of neighborhoods and highlighting the voices of those who refuse to move elsewhere, thereby reaffirming these locals’ passion for their beloved Big Easy.

Dan Gillmor defines the principles of a new media literacy for journalists as skepticism, judgment, understanding, and reporting. NOLA bloggers embody these principles, quite transparently, with many of their entries, photos, and videos repeating the sentiment of being neglected, misunderstood, and misrepresented. They use their blogs to share their painful memories and their daily triumphs. Building on the trust quotient their virtual community has established, they use listservs and wikis to organize face-to-face efforts and to reach out and teach others how to access information.

The statistics collected by the Pew Internet and American Life Project document that since the tragedies of September 11th the number of networked citizens has increased, and those with access now have greater means to push the boundaries during a breaking story. As we create an infinite archive from which worldwide audiences can learn about crisis communications, we may eventually be able to prevent loss instead of only documenting it. For instance, I wonder how the Katrina response might have differed now that a number of New Orleanians are using services such as Twitter and Brightkite to broadcast their actions and locations. The established channels (Red Cross, FEMA, and news agencies) would obviously have to be aware of and monitor these sites when a disaster arises; otherwise, these utterances would continue to go unheard by the powers that be that control the necessary resources. The scenario is an intriguing one to consider.

I do think that every medium has its limits; e.g., documentary films and mass media coverage of national and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina can only expose so much because they often interview small populations of survivors, clip their responses into sound bites, and/or edit out the long pauses that come when victims try to speak of the trauma and loss they suffered. Blogs and other Web 2.0 hosting sites allow users to document both immediate and extended chronicles, but the same affordances that make these technologies valuable can also transform them into echo chambers. For example, NOLA bloggers are quick to reveal their biases when “writing the wrong” in the comments section of an uniformed outsider’s post on whether or not the city should receive federal assistance; however, their own individual blogs do not always reach an audience beyond the already interested and informed Gulf Coast.

Thanks to the aggregator at Placeblogger.com, I realize that New Orleans is not unique in being a city that uses technologies to define itself; however, I believe that these NOLA bloggers speak more freely and with greater urgency. Although they may not receive the national exposure they deserve, their writing exposes a range of opinions that might otherwise go unnoticed. Much of the importance of these permanently archived postings is that they can be read by those who actively search the Internet in order to better understand the rebuilding efforts. Indeed, these postings provide a deeper, truer reading of what is going on in New Orleans than what the nation is reminded of only every few months by celebrity remarks and anniversary specials.

As Dan Gillmor asserts, being skeptical and transparent are vital qualities of new media producers and consumers; however, I must contend with his point that we are starting from a deficit and that teachers who advance critical thinking are risking their jobs. As a member of the vibrant computers and composition community, I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the empirical research published on the topic of digital literacy, primarily in online journals such as Computers and Composition Online and Kairos.

Granted, those of us in higher education often face opposition from tenure and promotion boards when we integrate digital technologies into our scholarship, but more and more universities are assuming that their students enter the classroom technologically literate and willing to write in public spaces. As a result, writing programs across the nation are asking their first-year and upper-level undergraduates to analyze the content and design of webtexts and to reflect on how their ability to use computers to improve their learning has evolved. Microblogging tools and social networks allow those new to teaching with technology to learn—alongside their students—valuable lessons in hypertext linking, concise word choice, and active reading as well as the positive and negative consequences of public writing and collaboration. In addition, some faculty members utilize the many open source downloads available online and the applications that digital cameras and mobile devices come with in order to create with their students a wide range of multi-modal compositions.

As a teacher, blogger, and Internet researcher, my career is focused on engaging students and remaining relevant. By enacting these principles of a new media literacy—as the New Orleans bloggers continue to do—we have the ability to enhance our understanding of what it means to be part of a democratized media. As members of an open network, I encourage us all to enter into dialogues and take risks, for it is only by doing so that can cultivate the “trust meters” Gillmor describes.


Daisy Pignetti’s research consists of qualitative inquires into why people write online, particularly in the aftermath of disaster, and what psychological benefits “documenting the daily” through new media genres may have for both the producer and consumer. She shared interview data from her dissertation project on the post-Katrina blogosphere with the Berkman Center last year as part of the 2007 Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme.

Last fall she received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of South Florida and began as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.


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Mumbai and Social Media

Real time. That is the gift of social media. I remember being so incredibly glad of the connectivity provided by Twitter during our own evacuation during Hurricane Gustav. Now as the situation in Mumbai explodes across the Internet my dear friend Maitri (@Maitri on Twitter) has rallied together the prime social media based resources for connecting to the situation.

Via VatulBlog:

As usual, mainstream media is useless and slow in its updates.  I’ve been following the #mumbai Twitter feed and Mahalo is doing a great job rounding up all the news.  Blogger Vinu is on the scene and is uploading many of his pictures to Flickr.  Gauravonomics has an excellent post up about the power of real-time citizen journalism during these attacks; he has a more extensive set of links.  Here is a Google map of Mumbai attack locations.

Twitter user yelvington just said, “Fascinating. CNN is filling airtime; #mumbai channel is full of tidbits posted by witnesses.”  Another chided India’s NDTV for showing footage from one part of the city and referring to it as another (New Orleanians, remember when FOXCNNMSNBC did this during Katrina and Gustav?  It’s not just us.)

This is a substantive and organic change, disaster and war will no longer have the distance they once did. It will take time for that distance to evaporate, but it is doing so at a far greater rate than most realize.

Keep the people of Mumbai in your prayers. Flying bullets can really screw up your day….

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