Quick note to say congratulations to Reg Newell, recently retired as the Nova Scotia – Eastern Habitat Joint Venture Stewardship Coordinator at NS Department of Natural Resources, for his Honorary Member Award from the Nova Scotia Institute of Agrologists. Lovely that the award was presented by another one of our favourite people in my lab, Kathryn Bremner (NS Environmental Farm Planner) of the NS Federation of Agriculture. Reg and Kathryn have been critical to our work on biodiversity-friendly farming, including our assessment of the Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation program, the BioLOG website that came out of it, and Wood Turtle Strides that came out of that. Bravo, Reg!
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.
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.
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.
While I’m catching up on emails and admin from being away last week in New Orleans for AAG, here’s a nice video of my (Oxford) PhD student Bernard Soubry, talking about his Masters research at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment and Environmental Change Institute.
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.
Today is the 36th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, which I think of as “my first war” because it was the first to penetrate my childhood consciousness, otherwise occupied with all things me. It feels therefore fitting that today my short article reflecting on my month in the Falklands, called The New Battle for the Falklands, appeared online at Canadian Notes and Queries. It also appeared in the Winter issue 101 of the print version (p. 15-18). Emotions lingered from my time in the Falklands that were making it difficult to write up the work for a scholarly audience, so I challenged myself to write about it in a venue and with language more accessible to the public. Now CNQ is a literary journal– hardly plebian–but it is also quite funny and well-designed thanks to graphics by Seth. It also has a strong cultural storytelling angle and an ‘abroad’ column available to those who want to write about travel so it was a good fit.