This week our development team announced the release of the LandmanReportCard (LRC), the first of our experiments in designing tools for community understanding and self-defense. We’ve chosen one of the most difficult community contexts imaginable: neighborhoods, mostly rural, that stand in the path of some of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world. In the mix are weak and compromised governments, a lack of local media, mutant baby goats, a toxic soup of industrial byproducts, unmatched potential for profits, flammable tap water, and a clean burning source of energy that may be central to national security. It is a situation that is so complicated and distributed that it’s difficult to conceive or describe except in bits and pieces: parts of scenic rural Colorado have air quality measurements worse than Los Angeles or the Jersey Turnpike. Hundreds of millions of completely unregulated, undisclosed chemicals are being injected into the earth in a score of states. State governing committees filled with former industry employees. Houses exploding. Individuals and small rural communities are profoundly impacted, but their chance of understanding their situation, let alone changing it, are slim.
LRC is part of the larger ExtrAct project, which we’ve been working on for about a year, building out our technical infrastructure while doing field research and meeting with stake holders. The central clients for our systems are landowners, who generally have the least to gain from extraction, and the most to lose, and often don’t have a choice about whether to get involved or not. But we’ve also met with subcontractors, lawyers and journalists, doctors and veterinarians, epidemiologists and toxicologists, geologists and environmentalists, industry representatives and government functionaries. LRC is a relatively simple web application, designed for citizens’ first encounters with industry, allowing them to record and rate their experiences with industry representatives. We pushed to release the LRC application first as a response to the massive scramble for drilling rights (the oft-reported Marcellus Play) that is happening around the east and south east of the United States. Future ExtrAct applications will be designed around other phases in a citizen’s relationship to extraction — a relationship that is complex and that can last a lifetime.
Over the next months we’ll be meeting with community groups around the country, introducing them to LRC and integrating their suggestions into the next components of the ExtrAct suite. These community groups are typically formed after locals realize that standard means of seeking to control their environmental, political, and economic environment — like litigation, legislation, and regulation — don’t seem to be working. These community groups are our beta testers, have been actively involved in development, and after they have had a chance to populate LRC we will open it to the general public.
Other applications in ExtrAct aim to help impacted citizens use the data that industry and government disclose already, but is difficult to access or understand. We also hope to help communities to record and organize their own data on their situation, data that is often far more detailed and accurate than anything currently available. The accumulated local knowledge will feed back to other community members, but with luck will also be profoundly important to experts like epidemiologists, lawyers, and regulators. Most importantly for these communities, distributed over half the states in the country, is how the software can help mix local, geographically specific information with support for collective action both across and between communities. For instance, many communities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York are undergoing the kind of scramble for leases and drilling rights that communities in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming have lived through for 20 years. What can these Eastern communities learn from their Western cousins? How can they help each other? Can these different communities collaborate to build a more complete understanding of the massive corporations that are working across and between them?
Over the next few weeks, several members of our multidisciplinary team will post followups that describe different parts of our project. First up is Sara Wylie, an anthropologist who has done nearly three years of ethnography in affected communities, and co-founded the ExtrAct project. This is her first time making a new technology, but her background is in both laboratory biology and Science & Technology Studies (STS). If you don’t know STS, it’s a remarkable field that does empirical work to understand how technologies are created, how they affect society, and how society affects them. In many cases, technical discourses are completely unrelated to democratic ones, and trying to understand how they can be rejoined is central to many scholars, including Sara. She’ll write about her work in listening to communities, and describe the unique qualities of natural gas development.
We are looking forward to describing the project as it continues, and to responding to your comments.