Public Lab Research note

Personal Reflections from Appalachia Barnraising 2017

by nanocaj | August 27, 2017 02:41 27 Aug 02:41 | #14793 | #14793

A full five days before the Appalachia Barnraising, out of work for only three days, and I get an email from Stevie through the Public Lab listserv -- registration has been extended! I had no idea what a "Barnraising" or an "un-conference" was in this context, but after doing a little research on the website I make a quick decision that I should definitely get in my car and drive from western MA to Morgantown, WV for this event. Since I had lived in the Appalachians of southwest VA and had done some research on contaminated mine drainage, the theme of extreme resource extraction (such as mountaintop removal coal mining and natural gas fracking) really drew me in. Even more so was the opportunity to hear the personal stories of those directly affected by the dusty and cancer-causing air, flammable and polluted water, and who live in towns manipulated by out-of-town greed and a desperate need for local jobs. As best I could I prepared myself to not be an obvious out-of-touch academic and went forth with as little expectations as possible, with an open mind and ready to learn.

The Barnraising event was held in a fantastic space for having collaborative interactions such as this, at the Media Innovation Center at West Virginia University. Being used to huge academic conferences where you have to be approved to give a presentation months in advance, I was initially confused as to why there was no schedule. But oh! This was an "un-conference." So after setting up a few ground rules and explaining the ethics policy (an interesting and definitely important idea), we set about creating a schedule of sessions in a democratic-type way. First, each person wrote an idea for a discussion topic that most interested them, shared it with the group and stuck it to the wall. Not being at all prepared for this, I wrote something like "water quality monitoring -- what we have and what we need." With a wall full of very diverse ideas, we grouped them and put them on the whiteboard schedule. I found this to be a fascinating exercise in how complete strangers had to interact, balance competing personal interests, and without any obvious overtones of elevating anyone's expertise above another. (Sidenote: having nametags with just names and introductions without listing off the resume is a great way to level the playing field!)


Photo credit: Carol Johnson

Throughout the day, I participated in many interesting discussions: youth outreach with art and data integration using Public Lab resources, how to create sustainable economies in WV, how to assemble Kaptery dataloggers for obtaining environmental data (e.g. temperature and barometric pressure), and how communities can monitor air quality. Without naming the specific sessions, I would like to share some observations I had about what worked and what didn't in terms of achieving a useful outcome. These thoughts could be helpful in any gathering of diverse groups of people who are trying to come together to solve a critical problem.

What worked fairly well:

Having a clear goal

In one session, the moderator had a specific goal in mind. While that goal was not achieved through consensus, it was helpful to have a specific issue to discuss, and it appeared that many useful ideas were generated that were likely to be quickly implemented.

In the water quality / data logger session that I moderated, after some uncertainty as to the goal of the session, I just had everyone break into smaller groups to assemble and test out the two data loggers. This ended up working fairly well because there were enough people who were comfortable enough to take the lead and could show the others (like me) who had no experience assembling small electronics. Two groups managed to get the Kaptery Nano ($29) up and running and collecting data, which was uploaded to Excel and graphed. The other group practiced soldering the components of the Kaptery Mini Pearl ($19) and learned that shorting out a circuit board is not too scary. So while we didn't get to do any particularly useful experiments with the data loggers, we learned how easy they were to put together (a big step for those of us who are not DIY technologists!).


Photo credit: Public Lab (Twitter feed)

Asking questions first rather than jumping to answers

In one particularly well-moderated session, everyone in the group was there to learn and no-one was an expert on the topic. At first, we questioned what we could really accomplish with our discussion. But our excellent moderator facilitated a brainstorming session in the following way:

  • Identify some important scenarios
  • Identify short and long term goals
  • Make a list of questions needed to answer to achieve those goals

Even if we didn't come up with solutions to problems, we all learned a great way to facilitate discussions when planning community campaigns! Being able to ask good questions is a valuable skill we all need to practice more.


Photo credit: Carol Johnson

What needed improvement:

Prioritizing community needs

Most people in Public Lab are familiar with the concept of experts "helicoptering in" to solve a community-level problem, but end up focusing on their own goals instead of the community's. This occurs with academics, government officials and nonprofits alike, and with experts and non-experts alike. In the discussions I participated in during this Barnraising event, I was disappointed to see the members of affected communities grossly outnumbered by outsiders like me, and moreover in discussions where community members weren't present, to me their voices were painfully absent. Some people tended to focus on their own agenda without visible attempts to incorporate affected community members' perspectives. I don't think this was intentional, but it was disconcerting how out of practice we are at critically thinking about someone else's needs outside our own bubble, and we are conceivably people who want to be compassionate and create an equitable society. This is where asking questions rather than jumping to answers, especially with regards to long-term visions, really helps. Questions regarding economic, social, and environmental pros and cons from community perspectives, and ways to humanize collaboration and cooperation, could be really useful for centering community need in our discussions and actions.

Overall, it was a great experience for me to get out of my academic bubble, and observe and participate in the democratic exchange of knowledge to address critical problems. I think we can do better in centering community need rather than ideology or tangential agendas, and we can do so by asking critical stakeholders questions to generate and discern clear goals. A big thanks to the folks at Public Lab who organized the event and invited me to share my thoughts on this blog!

About the author: Carol Johnson has a Ph.D. in Geosciences from Virginia Tech, and researches a wide variety of environmental pollutants ranging from metals in mine drainage, mercury in estuary sediments to quantum dot nanoparticles in TVs that end up in landfills. While at Virginia Tech, she spent a lot of time rock climbing and hiking in the Appalachians, and really misses the mountains when she's not there! You can follow her on Twitter @nanoCAJ.


Thanks, Carol, these are some really thoughtful reflections and as we all continuously refine how we approach and participate in these events it's always excellent to exchange ideas on the event model itself and what we all bring to it, so thank you very much!

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