A Powerful Tool for Getting Citizens Involved

By engaging residents on issues of climate and weather, it demonstrates how program design can be improved and strengthened.
March 14, 2018
A post from a resident on ISeeChange's website that crowdsources flooding issues in New Orleans. (ISeeChange)
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

For decades, the benefit of engaging citizens in government programs has been an axiom familiar to all public managers. In theory, but often not so much in practice, early involvement of affected residents and beneficiaries should shape program design, build buy-in and smooth adjustment to changes brought by program execution.

As a veteran administrator with countless advisory boards and public hearings behind me, I remember that these processes often left citizens and administrators alike frustrated and frequently still lacking the insights we sought. That's why I have welcomed a new tool of public engagement that has demonstrated its value to citizens and public managers alike, in this case in the realm of climate and weather.

ISeeChange was developed in 2012 as part of a national initiative to pair independent journalists with public broadcasting stations interested in providing more local content in their communities. (The Wyncote Foundation, for which I'm a senior adviser, was one of several funders.) Piloted in Iowa's farming communities, ISeeChange is a technology-enabled, crowdsourced climate and weather journal that has proved to be an effective link among sectors studying and mitigating climate-change disruptions -- citizens, scientists, journalists and public agencies. Citizen participants place and monitor sensors and post blogs that become part of a larger story led by journalists and used by scientists and public agencies, all shared on accessible software platforms.

The applications of ISeeChange in New York City and New Orleans illustrate how much value it can bring to public administrators. In the Harlem Heat project, for example, Harlem residents kept sensors in their homes to measure heat and humidity during the summer months, and the data, displayed in accessible form, was shared to with participants, journalists and public agencies. Community meetings became centers for discussion and analysis of the data, as well as a place for journalists and public officials to hear stories of what that data meant.

Public officials learned what residents had long known: Heat builds up fast, dissipates more slowly and threatens more lives than previously understood. Policies on heat advisories were reconsidered. Journalists noticed things that were not working as intended. A story about underutilized cooling centers prompted better signage and outreach to affected residents. Managers of public housing, where many residents lived, rethought air-conditioning and utility policies that jeopardized the health and lives of vulnerable residents.

With media and science partners as well as environmental-justice advocates, ISeeChange sees the next step as expanding into more neighborhoods with real-time sensors that will be immediately available to public agencies and residents in the throes of heat emergencies.

In New Orleans, the hometown of ISeeChange founder Julia Kamari Drapkin, the tool and the engagement process have been trained on the notorious flooding problems that have plagued the city throughout its history and have been exacerbated both by climate change and, ironically, by mitigation efforts. As recent history has illustrated, today's flood maps are often poor predictors of flooding in many neighborhoods. Existing data lacks the granularity necessary to anticipate flooding patterns. "Our data doesn't tell you how severe flooding is or where the water is going to go," remarked an employee of the National Weather Service's Mississippi River Forecast Center. Flooding hot spots can be known to nearby residents for generations yet be undetectable in flood maps.

ISeeChange, working with New Orleans' Office of Resilience and Sustainability and the Trust for Public Land, developed a multi-pronged, community-sourced network for monitoring flooding. The baseline and flood-condition data created through time-lapsed photographs, crowdsourced stories and rain gauges has become an important feature in refining flood maps, designing green infrastructure projects and, perhaps most importantly, evaluating whether they are performing as intended.

The New Orleans experience best makes the point that ISeeChange represents an important innovation and evolution in community engagement for public agencies. As Colleen McHugh of the city's Office of Resilience observed, "We know that community meetings are not voices for everybody. We want people to have buy-in and ownership of this work. … There is some real power in how engagement can inform project design." And, as she noted, "ongoing engagement on the front end is easier." The payoff continues as changing data allows evaluation of how well an intervention is working.

Citizen engagement in delivery of services has evolved very slowly, especially in fields such as infrastructure design where the issues are often highly technical. By using technology, a program like ISeeChange efficiently collects data that is trusted because it has grassroots origins and offers human-scale granularity. Together with the storytelling, the data can become a platform for shared problem-solving. In my book, that beats heated debates that rarely shed much light.