Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: big data (page 1 of 2)

NOLA book serendipity

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Bookshelf serendipity strikes again! I can’t resist telling this story, though it was awhile ago. Appropriate to the geography conference I was in town to attend, I bought a compelling atlas of New Orleans by Rebeccas Solnit and Snedeker, Unfathomable City, part of a series at UC Press, at a small bookstore behind the Cabildo. Each map and essay tells an idiosyncratic story about the place, including human and river channel migrations, social and landscape erosions, including social clubs, seafood and sex. While excellent, it wasn’t an easy one to tote in my bag for idle moments.

The ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf at my hotel filled the gap with But What if We’re Wrong, by pop seer Chuck Klosterman (sorry Columns Hotel, I’ll leave one next time). Klosterman is talking about the same thing that I was at AAG to talk about: climax thinking. He asks how we can learn to make decisions anticipating the many ways that we might be wrong, so we don’t box ourselves in. Instead we denigrate the people who made decisions or assessments we reflect upon today as folly, but assume against evidence that we’re going to be right. There is something to be said about doubt.

Having finished both of the above, I needed another book for the flight home. During a layover in Toronto airport I bought Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowicz. He is a computer scientist who thinks data mining has replaced social science, so a few sections (particularly the conclusion) grated, but this was a fun (and surprisingly dirty) introduction to how secondary online datasets like our Google queries help us learn what people are really thinking and feeling. I have since brought up his examples in a few social science contexts, like the energy incubator at Cornell. I’m loathe to hand it to students, given some of the icky content (people are, it turns out, gross), but as survey response rates drop, offensiphobia rules, and questions around sustainability cross the sociology/psychology boundary, such datasets may well be the only way we can really understand what kind of society we are really working with.

New Orleans in the rear view

The final of 50 parade floats in the Chalmette Irish, Italian and Isleno parade, where they not only throw beads and trinkets, but also vegetables, fruit, and here, toilet paper.

The final of 50 parade floats in the Chalmette Irish, Italian and Isleno parade, where they not only throw beads and trinkets, but also vegetables, fruit, and here, toilet paper.

It has a sprint since getting back from AAG in New Orleans. It was my first time at that epic event, spread across several downtown hotels. I was surprised to actually run into people I knew from other organizations like IASNR and topics like rangelands, ecosystem services and climate adaptation that I didn’t necessarily connect with Geography, including MES alum Paul Sylvestre, now doing a PhD at Queens. Didn’t lay eyes on my Dalhousie colleagues, however, without effort.

Geography is big enough in its traditional form, but it has expanded and become much more problem-based than the Australian Geographer’s Association meeting in 2005 after which I swore off Geography conferences (that one kept human, physical and spatial geographers in never-the-twain separate sessions irregardless of topic). Happily surprised, I attended four or five of the Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation special sessions organized by the Human Dimensions of Global Change Specialty Group, which had many highlights but particularly memorable were Hannah Gosnell’s talk on happiness and regenerative grazing (HM) in Australia, and Neil Adger’s speech after his lifetime achievement award, as well as his former postdoc Don Nelson’s moving tribute. I was pleased with the content if not the crowd size in the two sessions in which I participated, on Recycling Energy Landscapes and (via Mike Smit on our new SSHRC) in Computation for Public Engagement in Complex Problems: From Big Data, to Modeling, to Action.

Phase 3 of a 3-phase demonstration of the value of wetland buffers in protecting cities from storm action in the Cabildo Museum.

Phase 3 of a 3-phase demonstration of the value of wetland buffers in protecting cities from storm action in the Presbytere Museum.

It was grand to be back in New Orleans after 16 years, even through a deluge event with flood warnings. I was lucky to get into my old apartment which was wide open, being gutted for renovation. My old boulangerie is still there (though the fougasse is not as I recall), and the streetcars still charm. The French Quarter Festival was on – all local music – and the best food we found was offered by ex-military cajun Adam Lee out of a small pub kitchen uptown in Prytania Hall. A muffuletta sandwich from the Central Grocery, eaten in the sun in front of Jackson Square listening to a brass band, came second. Nothing else came close. Very cool to see ‘planning for water’ and the importance of wetland buffers highlighted in the Presbytere’s museum installation on Katrina.

Erstwhile Fazendeville, Chalmette Battlefield

Erstwhile Fazendeville, Chalmette Battlefield

On our last day in town we ventured east, Ubering through the Lower 9th Ward (hit hardest by Katrina) onward to Chalmette, which was having its Irish, Italian and Isleno (Canary Islander) parade (see top picture). For some reason lost to time those on floats pelt paradegoers with fruit and vegetables, as well as the usual plastic beads and trinkets. Potatoes, carrots, CABBAGES: I even saw someone holding a pineapple. We killed some time first at the Chalmette Battlefield, where American forces beat off the British in 1814. Alongside the straining levee, the Mississippi running high after the deluge, the cemetery and battlefield were very wet. Crayfish chimneys were all over the wet lawn of the former battlefield. I was saddened as much by the story of Fazendeville as by the earlier loss of life . Quoting from the plaque:

Jean Pierre Fazende, a free man of colour and New Orleans grocer, inherited land within the battlefield in 1857. After the Civil War, he divided it and sold it to freed slaves from local plantations. Eventually the community grew to more than 200 people and became known as Fazendeville. The National Park Service bought the land in 1966 after long, contentious negotiations.

Where did they move to? Mostly the New Orleans 9th Ward, that area so hard hit by Katrina. What a bad joke. The old main street is visible only as a linear depression today, but the plaque says the community still meets. Like the residents of Africville here in Halifax, or former residents of what is now the Gagetown weapons range in New Brunswick, they have reunions and otherwise somehow keep the community alive after being forcibly removed.

Chalmette Battlefield Cemetery, inundated

Chalmette Battlefield Cemetery, inundated

What is to be done (with Facebook)?

I’m not on Facebook. Never have been. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Certainly not SnapChat or any of those newfangled things. But as a social scientist I’ve increasingly found useful the data that other people make public in such settings. Some reasons are pragmatic. The public has become exhausted by surveys, and are too busy to participate in interviews and workshops, at the same time that environmentally minded graduate students have become increasingly less likely to have drivers’ licenses and thus less able to head out on field work to run them. Human ethics research boards are generally unconcerned with data that people voluntarily place in the public domain, allowing quick pilot work using social media across a range of topics and publics. If you take user agreements and settings literally and assume that those data have been volunteered, it is quite easy to be ethical by aggregation and citation, like you would any source. Finally, I believe there is very real understanding to be gained by using such data as proxies to understand human values, preferences, behaviours, and yearnings. My qualitative methods course finished up this week with presentations, and it took my breath away what insight the students gained over a month on topics as diverse as sexually transmitted disease infection, sustainable food conceptualizations, and human disturbance of migratory shorebirds thanks to posts on Reddit and Instagram.

So then comes the recent horrifying news over Facebook and its business model: unscrupulously selling access to large volumes of personal data to even less scrupulous companies like Cambridge Analytica. So what do I do now, besides a quick (and perhaps smug) wipe of the brow with relief that I did not aid in either Trump or Brexit? The furor suggests that many people, maybe even some of the same ones who so clearly cherish unknown followers, are not aware their data is available to people like me.  They may not see my intentions differently than the infamous personality test that fed Cambridge Analytica, for instance if I advertise a scholarly survey via Facebook to target a very specific group not otherwise easy to capture. Moreover, how implicated might I feel if I paid them for that access, knowing now what kind of algorithms are driving that cleverness? Perhaps the lesson for researchers is the same as the lessons for social media users more generally; a somewhat Methodist moral that if something is effortless, there may be something wrong with it. Yet I will mourn the loss of access to social riches that will inevitably follow this news.

The rise of visual culture at a glance

Data artist Josh Begley is doing some amazing things with open data, geocoding and archives that speak to the nature of our times. New collaborator Mike Smit today shared with me Begley’s video of every New York Times front page since 1952. The limits of publication technology are writ here, as well as our increasing appetite for photographs to tell stories. Visualize, in parallel, how the smartphone has exploded the visibility of events, newsworthy and otherwise, using built-in image and video as well as apps for sharing them. This video based on conventional media is just the tip of an increasingly bottom-heavy iceberg.

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