The Great Lakes Commons Map

A week or two ago, I blogged about the rise of new sorts of eco-digital commons that blend virtual spaces with environmental management.  It's a bit of serendipity to learn this week about the a fascinating new online tool, the Great Lakes Commons Map.  The map is an interactive platform that solicits contributions and conversation by people who love the Great Lakes.  The idea is to turn a resource that is often seen as belonging to no one into one that is actively stewarded by everyone.  How?  By inviting everyone to post their own videos, text, photos and comments about specific portions of the Great Lakes.  Over time, it is hoped that the site will help build a new shared “mental map” and shared space for people to talk about the Great Lakes as an integrated bioregion -- and to take action to defend it.

The map was created by Paul Baines, an environmental educator, and Darren Puscas of reWORKit (“web production for unions and social change”).  Here is Haines' video introduction to the map.  Haines hopes that the website will help people annotate their conservation projects, cleanups, ecological education and restoration initiatives, activist efforts, walking tours, historical markings, and other Great Lakes projects on a single site, and thereby illustrate how and why the Lakes are a commons.  Anyone can post their own personal stories, reports of threats to the Lakes' ecological health, alerts that seek to organize and educate, notices about upcoming events, etc. 

Haines eventually hopes to make it possible to post and share video and audio on the site; use SMS and Twitter feeds for reporting and campaigning; host workshops and training on community mapping; and translate the website into other languages. 

What’s especially beautiful about the site is its use of Ushahidi, an open source, interactive geospatial platform for the crowdsourcing of information in crisis situations.  The platform has been used to enable the geospatial visualization human trafficking, for example.  Haines adapted it to serve as a way to crowdsource information, images, video and more that can create a new shared cultural space for saving the Great Lakes.

Haines explains his hopes for the map this way:

By working to make the Great Lakes a Commons, we also need to change how we think about the roles of our governments, our use of natural resources, the power and rights of citizens, and the needs of future generations and non-human species. A big challenge, but we are living in extraordinary times with the ability to learn from indigenous wisdom, historical abuse, technological connectivity, and previous social movements.

The ultimate goal of this map is to use the energy of the crowd (crowdsourcing) with the power of networked media to arouse our biosphere consciousness: a mind-shift that understands our interdependence with all of the earth's elements.

It is too early to say how the website will evolve -- there are only 18 reports on the map at present -- but it is easy to envision the Great Lakes Commons Map becoming the go-to virtual space for Great Lakes enthusiasts and activists. 

Here’s an example:  An anonymous citizen created a five-minute video called “My Many Commons,” which asked “What are the commons?”  It attempts to identify the many invisible commons that a person might encounter in a daily walk around the edge of Lake Ontario, near the Humber River Bridge.  As the video moves about the area, the grateful citizen in a voiceover mentions the tap water he used in the morning, sidewalks and bridges to get to the water, bathing places used before going swimming, parks where people pose for their wedding photos, and a walking trail originally created by Native Americans called “The Shared Path.”

John Draper of the Cobourg Beach Society was pleased to hear about the Great Lakes Commons Map because it helped him publicize the work of activists protesting the enclosure of West Beach on Lake Ontario.  After “No Trespassing” signs were erected in 2007, local residents and visitors alike have been harassed by beachfront homeowners who claim that their property rights extend “to the water’s edge,” thus rendering normal beach use "illegal."  ut the truth, as Draper points out, is that much of this beach has been created by declining lake levels in the last few decades, long after the deeds were created. The Cobourg Beach Society feels that BELOW THE TRADITIONAL WATERLINE, THE BEACH MUST BELONG TO THE CITIZENS OF COBOURG.” (original emphasis)

It is easy to see how citizen concerns about the Great Lakes could find a fantastic forum – and rich organizing vehicle – via the interactive map.  Users can easily access material via various categories such as “Bike Tour,” “Cultural Curiosities,” “Ecological Features” and “Educate and Organize.”  A user can also search the site on the basis of types of media used to post things (email, Twitter, SMS, web form), and to locate videos and photos.

Haines says that his map was directly inspired by the Council of Canadians’ activism around the Great Lakes, especially its report, Our Great Lakes Commons: A People's Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever.  That report notes:  “A Commons narrative asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own.”  The website also cites the Great Lakes Project of On the Commons, which has launched an international campaign “to declare the Great Lakes a commons, a public trust and a protected bioregion, working with First Nations communities, inner city grassroots groups, green groups and major research and advocacy organizations like Food and Water Watch and the Council of Canadians.”

I can't help but think that future adaptations of the Ushahidi platform could help commoners elswhere recover their stewardship rights over nature.  The Balkans, Africa and Latin America spring to mind.  The software has a wonderful capacity to aggregate a dispersed public that otherwise has few opportunities to come together as a self-aware, deliberative body of commoners.  Just as the Pirate Party's LiquidFeedback helps advocacy and policy development evolve in new ways -- indeed, to create a new sort of public -- so the Great Lakes Commons Map could help citizen advocacy transcend the parochial, legalistic discourse of governments and advocacy-by-the-numbers that stodgy, old-line advocacy groups sometimes pursue.  Here's hoping that the Great Lakes Commons Map goes viral and opens up some new possibilities!