Empathy upgrades

New media strikes a deep chord

By Bill Kovarik

Appalachian Voice, February 2008


Teri Blanton typed her five digit zip code into the web site. Then it hit her. 

“I was shocked,” she said. The page showed that her own electricity was coming from the very mountaintop removal site that she had fighting for years.  

As an environmental leader in Berea, Kentucky, Blanton was among the first this fall to try out a new ilovemountains.org web feature showing the link between home electrical use and  mountaintop removal mining called “MyConnection.” 

It was exciting at first, she said. Showing the exact connection between end user and mountaintop removal mining has been a longstanding goal. At one point, activists talked about following coal trains with video cameras.

Now a new combination of four government databases, connected through an ingenious web device, was showing the connection from her own zip code, on a map, to her  power plant and the mountaintop removal sites that supply it with coal.   

This is the My Connections web link that Blanton tried. You can try it yourself right now. Type in your zip code and click the button. For a view of how this "badge" works, click on this link.


Blanton did not count on the emotional impact of the new geographically mapped information. 

“I said, oh no, not that site, that’s a community I’ve been working with forever,” she said of her work with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.   “They’re being blasted out of their houses, flooded out of their houses. When I saw that it was my own electricity that was forcing them out of their homes, well, it was just too much.”   

Blanton now buys electricity through a green cooperative, but others have also discovered the new, deeper emotional connections that are now possible through new  media.  

Cale Jaffe, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, had much the same reaction. “From the perspective of someone who works on these issues, I still hadn’t connected with that on a personal level before, so for me it had a profound ‘hit you in the gut’ kind of impact.  



This image looks eastward from the Appalachian Mountains across the state of Virginia. The Glen Lynn power plant, on the border of Virginia and West Virginia, feeds electrical power to Blacksburg. The plant has connections to mountaintop removal mining sites (shown with pick and hammer symbols).

The image is a vertical slice of a .kmz file downloaded from the ilovemountains.org web site and then opened in the Google Earth browser. It was created at Appalachian Voices in Boone NC by Matt Wasson, Jeff Deal and Benji Burrell.

-- MattWasson  

Matt Wasson is the conservation director of Appalachian Voice and has a PhD in biology. 

"New media is du rigeur for building a national movement. That’s absolutely whats required in this case to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. It’s a national issue. As a small regional group taking on a national issue, this would have been virtually impossible in the pre-internet days.  The technology makes possible national level campaigning for small organization. A strategic focus can yield big results. 

"The  motivation for building ilovemountains.org was to create a sort of one stop shop for  people to learn about MTR and very easily get involved with the movement to end it. That’s the overall motivation. Within that there were some strategic objectives that we wanted to accomplish thanks to tools like GoogleEarth were able to accomplish them. 

"To show the extent and scale of devastation – that tends to be what’s missed, when people hear about the human tragedy, or the horrendous story, they don’t necessarily  appreciate the scale. The original ilovemountains.org National Memorial for the Mountains was all about scale.  

"The obvious next step was to show people’s connection to it—that’s what this represents

"Next two objectives we’re taking on is showing what’s at stake, to really show people value of what’s being destroyed. So the project is about America’s most endangered mountains. 

"Finally, the project will show very clearly what the alternatives are – And at that point Ill feel like we’ve made our case. 

"We basically used four databases – two from the Energy Information Administration of the Dept. of Energy; one from the Environmental Protection Agency; and one from the Office of Surface Mining.   No one had ever put them together before, and it wasn’t easy.

"We really had to force it. This thing was a year in the making from the initial conception to the launch late in 2007. 

"The real story is what is happening in Appalachia, and how deeply wrong that is. But the problem is that the story only goes so far in attracting mainstream media and getting people involved. So taking advantage of the technology was a natural step in bringing the story to a larger audience. I don’t want to make the technology so much the story but to make the problem and peoples connection to the problem --  that’s the story.  

"When you boil it down we’re a bunch of professionals doing our job, and its the people brave enough to stand up, going through just unimaginable hardships, that is the story." 

Visually and very powerfully conveying our relationship to MTR

Jeff Deal   

Jeff Deal is the information technology specialist at Appalachian Voices. He has a degree in computer science and is working on a degree in appropriate technology and a masters degree in computer science . 

"When Matt pitched it to me, I didn’t really have idea of what would look like. It wasn’t concrete until I saw red lines on Google maps -- that’s when I got it.  These are tools for visually and very powerfully conveying our relationship to mountaintop removal and energy. 

"We use a MySql relational database with these four data sets and map them to the Google two dimensional Maps and to Goggle Earth three dimensional maps.  Coding the site  took months and months.

 "The data sets had spreadsheets with 200 columns as many as  32,000 rows of coal transaction data. A company might purchas coal, then it might go to a  holding facility, then shipped to a utility. It  turned out to be a heck of a lot of work. 

"The bar is continually being raised. Right now we’re working on the 10 most endangered mountains. We may be able to present more of a hope-inspiring approach, showing places where there are permits but people are fighting and getting involved." 



Along with ilovemountains.org, two other coal and climate projects using new media include  the Sierra Club’s “Stop the Coal Rush” (www.sierraclub.org/maps/coal.asp ) and Carbon Monitoring for Action (www.carma.org ).  The carma site shows the world’s dirtiest coal fired power plants.    

The Sierra club keeps a database of proposed and cancelled coal US power plants. The plants can be seen on a list, but its more dramatic to see the status of the plants mapped  on a web based map or in GoogleEarth. The blue plant markers in the image represent coal plants that have been cancelled or deferred. (A note for the digitally challenged: GoogleEarth is not a web site. It is a map reader that operates as a separate application. It can be downloaded, for free, from Google.com.  The Sierra Club site can be found in a GoogleEarth search or by downloading a special “kmz” map file from the Sierra Club site which may then beopened in the Google Earth application.)    

“It has really made people much more aware of plants that are planned or proposed in their own communities,” said Virginia Cramer of the Sierra Club.  “So we’ve seen an increase in the number of people who are vocalizing their opposition to these plants.” 


One of the first uses of interactive social mapping involved a proposal for logging 1,000 acres of redwood trees in the Los Gatos northern California in the fall of 2005.  Rebecca Moore of Google lived in the canyon and wanted to show the impact of the logging proposal.    She obtained geographic date provided by the county government in a “shapefile” format (.shp) and uploaded it into Google Earth.  Then she shaded areas that were to be logged and used push pins to attach notes and highlight various features of the geography, like schools and roads.  ( earth.google.com/outreach/cs_nail.html  )

At an overflowing community meeting in September, 2005, she zoomed the map from outer space to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then turned on the long, red swath representing the logging zone.

“There was a gasp from the audience,” she said.  “We then flew virtually up the Los Gatos Creek canyon, past their homes and their childrens' schools, along our steep and narrow mountain roads that would be burdened with a dozen/day 90,000 lb. logging trucks navigating more than 30 blind curves where children walk to school.” 

“The flyover electrified the room,” she said. “Suddenly everyone began to call out issues, questions, concerns that were now apparent in the plan.”    The community won the first round, but a revised logging plan is now being proposed.  And a revised web site, complete with even more logging and community impact information, is being used to empower citizens.


Another important new site uses Google Earth mapping to illustrate and highlight the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan. In connection with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Google acquired satellite imagery over the region of Darfur and Eastern Chad.

People are urged to "witness the destruction in Darfur via Google Earth" and to "zoom down and see what a burned village looks like from above." The satellite images also show the vast tent cities of people displaced from their homes. Combined withphotographs on the ground of refugees struggling to survive and eyewitness testimony of atrocities in attacked villages, it is easy to visualize the face of genocide in Africa. While the crisis is much larger than the technology, it is clear that, to some extent, the new media technologies are helping bridge gaps in communities, in countries and around the globe.



New media often comes with what journalist John Hockenberry calls an “empathy upgrade.” And that can be a welcome relief for those weary of the impersonal and relentless commercialization of the mainstream media.   For social and environmental activists, empathy upgrades through mapping and other tactics are making all the difference.      

Connecting the mass media with the concept of social empathy is not an entirely new idea. Sociologist Daniel Lerner wrote in 1958 that radio was changing the world, and that the essence of a successful “mobile personality”  was the development of an empathetic view of society through exposure to other people’s stories in the mass media. “Empathy, to simply the matter, is the ability to see oneself in the other fellow’s situation,”  he wrote in The Passing of Traditional Society.   Lerner's enthusiasm for hastening the advent of modernity has since been seen as a one-dimensional technology transfer model, but his insight into media empathy seemed to ring a bell.

A few years later , media theorist Marshall MacLuhan wrote that the transition from print media to electronic media seemed to undermine the “aloof and dissociated role” people tended to have in a literate society.  He pointed to the success of the Civil Rights movement as new evidence that the media were linking people in unexpected and positive new ways. 

Hockenberry’s empathetic epiphany came after he strapped on a small device that unexpectedly discharged fistfuls of confetti from his backpack.  The confetti was meant to simulate an improvised explosive device.  The backpack carried a GIS locator that mapped downtown Boston to a virtual downtown Baghdad. Walking around Boston, Hockenberry came upon places where the virtual Baghdad had been hit by a suicide bomb that killed civilians.  

Strangely, the handfuls of confetti that were suddenly popped up into the air, virtually representing the war, created an emotional reaction in Hockenberry. It hit him as hard, he said, as anything that happened while he had been covering the actual war in Bagdhad.

Similar devices have been used more or less in reverse --  to measure and map emotional responses to travels around cities like London and San Francisco. The map of London to the left shows details of a walkaround with a gavanic skin response meter taking readings every 4 seconds, correlated with GPS position, which is shown as altitude data above the basic map. (See link for technical information. )

It’s called “biomapping” or emotional mapping, and at first it seems silly. After all, the direct mapping of one dimension of one person’s emotional state as they walk through a city hardly tells us anything useful.  But it is simply another experiment in an increasingly sophisticated set of new media forms designed to influence emotions. 

Silly examples or not, the potential for new media forms are being taken seriously at some universities -- a consortium of European universities,” led by the Max Planck Institute, is working together on biomapping or what is more eloquently described as bio-inspired materials design and processing.


Over 150 years ago, American writer Henry David Thoreau asked whether the telegraph would simply be a distraction from serious things,  in his words, "an improved means to an unimproved end." There is plenty of reason, even today, to be skeptical about new forms of communication.    

Commercial uses for the new emotional linkage inherent in the power of mapped interactive media are built into Google Earth and other new media. Sometimes it is difficult to negotiate past the commercial messages. Search for Arctic Ice, for instance, and you will find dozens of ice making firms. The visual and emotional advertising assault that the characters endure in dystopian sci-fi films like Minority Report and Blade Runner will someday become all too common, we can be sure.

But without question, there are also serious purposes in the uses to which the new media are being employed. 

To connect the suffering of people of Sudan or Appalachia with the rest of the world; to fight against new coal power pålants in the face of climate change; to visualize the retreat of the arctic ice cap or   the patterns of rising sea levels – these are the purposes people are finding for new database driven, GIS mapping media. Its hard to imagine anything more serious.  

It seems that Thoreau might admire the ends that have come into focus for some of the new technological means. 


Understanding historical data with visualization techniques

The "floating balloon" chart, made famous in 2006 by Swedish public health physician Hans Rosling, elegantly solved the problem of four-dimension (S-4) data display. Since then, Google developed an experimental ballon chart creator, which I used here to test the diffusion of Virginia Tech's Systems Biology Markup Language. What you see is five nations and the number of citations about SBML over a seven year period. It shows the US leading but other countries following closely behind. This chart is very flexible in that you can change from linear to logarithmic display. While the chart is just a teaching example, what's interesting to me is that a lot of the creative energy in computing these days is going into the region where history, visual design and data mining overlap. (See "Empathy Upgrades" ).




Eleventh Hour (film) action web site. The red spots on the map respresent meet up places.
Note small number of meet-ups. Web sites alone are not the most effective way of generating in-person action.
Multiple stages of information and activation are needed.


Above are major sites from the American Instistute of Architects "Blueprint for America" projects are displayed.

Google enables people to easily embed a Google Map into their Web site or blog, similarly to a YouTube video. No coding or programming required; just copying and pasting a snippet of HTML. To embed a Google Map, users will simply pull up the map they want to embed--it can be a location, a business, series of driving directions, or a My Map they have created--and then click 'Link to this page' and copy and paste the HTML into their Web site or blog.



Play the Google Earth game.

Zoom in close and spin GoogleEarth, using the navigation controls in the top left. Let the world spin several times. Stop when you see land. Then try to figure out where you have landed. My 15 year old and I started in Scotland and "landed" here. We followed endless rivers and found no civilization. We gave up, zoomed out, and found we were looking at a map of Siberia.



Tools and Terrain software / First class overview by the Virtual Terrain Project

Crime Maps

Chicago -- http://www.chicagocrime.org/