Want to know more about how the climate is changing in your area, and who’s writing about it?
On Earth Day, Earth Journalism Network, an arm of Internews, a nonprofit global media development organization, launched an interactive map, Climate Commons. It combines up-to-date information on climate change indicators like temperature, rainfall, and carbon-dioxide emissions across the US with geotagged stories about climate-related events and trends in different places.
A legend on the left side of the screen allows visitors to toggle between various types of climate data, which are color-coded on the map, while a sidebar on the right displays a list of stories for the area on display. As visitors zoom in, the climate data become more fine-grained and the story feed excludes articles outside the visible portion of the map. Visitors can also winnow the list with search terms or by using five built-in filters: general, humans, weather, oceans, and environment.
Part of the idea, according to Internews, is that the map can help identify strengths, weaknesses, and other patterns in climate coverage:
As an example of the kinds of insights Climate Commons can reveal, users who zoom into the area around Amarillo, Texas will note that the region received four times the normal precipitation in February of this year. This was due to a huge blizzard that dumped as much snow on North Texas (19 inches in some places) as Chicago received all last winter. But users will also note that there are no news stories available on the map about this event, suggesting that the mainstream media has not tied it to climate change (although the AP did mention the likely relationship between the storm and climate change in national and regional stories.)
Meanwhile, residents of Maine, for instance, can learn about a study which shows that climate change is likely to bring more rain than snow, and more storms that damage beaches. Climate Commons allows them to easily access such information, and how they can try and prevent or adapt to impacts, even if they don’t learn about it through regular media channels.
All of the climate data, which visitors can access through the map, come from publicly available sources, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Geological Survey.
James Fahn, director of the Earth Journalism Network, and a frequent contributor to CJR, explained that his team collects the news articles using Google Alerts and search terms such as “climate change” plus “sea level,” “forests,” or “cities.” Google’s software does some geo-location, but Fahn’s team, working with tech partner Axis Maps, developed algorithms that do a text analysis and look at the source of the publication to help determine an article’s geographic context. Even then, Fahn’s team has to go into each piece—about 25 to 50 per day, on average—and make a final determination about where to place them on the map.
“That’s something that we’ve learned with all these geo-journalism projects,” Fahn said. “You can do a lot with automated features and posting data, but you gotta have humans in there, checking, verifying, and ensuring that it all makes sense.”
Internews stressed that Climate Commons “is still a work in progress,” however, and Fahn’s team is still working out some kinks. On Friday, a geotag over Wichita, KA, led to a short post about the European Union’s (EU) decision cut funding for climate change adaptation. There was no link to Kansas and the post, which appeared on the blog of one of the EU’s sustainable development programs, wouldn’t qualify as news coverage.
Asked about the Wichita geotag, Fahn said his team would get better at geo-locating stories. As for the sources of information that the map is pulling in, he added there would also be an effort to focus on trustworthy outlets, but that idea was also to cast a wide net since traditional, or mainstream, media outlets often overlook locally or regionally focused climate coverage.
Climate Commons, which was made possible by a grant from Google Earth Outreach, is one of several geo-journalism projects that the Earth Journalism Network has undertaken. Last June, in partnership with O Eco, an environmental news agency in Brazil, Internews helped launch InfoAmazonia, an interactive map that combines satellite and other publicly available data about deforestation, wildfires, and other environmental indicators in the Amazon with geotagged stories.
That project, which Internews calls its “flagship” in geo-journalism, continues to expand. According to its coordinator, Gustavo Falieros, a Brazilian journalist and Knight International News Fellow, the InfoAmazonia recently added “interactive photo galleries, video mashups and a new ‘distribution widget’ that will allow journalists and NGOs to customize their own maps and data layers.”
Willie Shubert, one of Fahn’s team members, said that in coming months, the Earth Journalism Network hopes to improve upon Climate Commons in a similar manner, adding new information layers, including one on climate policies and regulations, and a time scale that will allow users to see not just current data, but changes over weeks, months, and years. They also want to attract new media partners for the project. They’ve got a ways to go still, but with some tinkering, the map could prove to be excellent resource for visualizing and tracking climate coverage nationwide.