Interview with Willie Shubert by Anna-Sophie Springer
A few weeks ago, I met Willie Shubert in Jakarta and he told me about his current work with two environmental journalism platforms, Ekuatorial.com, which focuses on Indonesia and Infoamazonia.org, which gathers reports and data about deforestation issues in South America, mainly Brazil. Given the two projects’ explicit emphasis on the importance of good storytelling and open source and open data, it seemed like a great idea to do a short interview together for this blog.
Willie himself is Senior Project Coordinator for Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. As a coordinator of a global network of environmental journalists, he helps make tools that enable people to connect with each other, find material support, and amplify their local stories to global audiences. In his previous position at National Geographic Magazine, he coordinated translation for the magazine’s thirty-two local language partners. He holds a degree in Geography from Humboldt State University, California with concentrations in cartography, environmental economics, and Chinese Studies. Outside of work, he devotes his time to the development of a free school dedicated to community building through education and to collaborative mapping and audio projects. He is also an expert in Balloon Mapping.
AS What is Ekuatorial.com and when was the platform started?
WS Ekuatorial is an environmental news site focused on the oceans, forests, and natural disasters of Indonesia. Launched in January of 2014 as a collaboration between the Earth Journalism Network and the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists, Ekuatorial uses the methodologies of GeoJournalism to combine storytelling with data visualization in order to contextualize events within the broader patterns of environmental change.
AS How does the site work?
WS At the most basic level our goal with Ekuatorial is to put local news into the context of the truly massive ecological change that Indonesia and the wider world are currently undergoing. We want to understand how local manifestation of environmental change is connected to this context. To do this Ekuatorial.com relies on two key communication methods: storytelling and data visualization. We collect available data from government agencies, satellites, and community organizations and organize it into a set of visuals that provide a common evidence base for the network of storytellers contributing their content. Each story is submitted from a network of reporters living in environmental hot spots and then geo-located and tagged by the core team in Jakarta. The result is an exploratory platform that enables people to interact with stories in a non-linear way and discover perspectives that they might not be familiar enough with to find otherwise.
AS What are some of the main themes the platform focuses on?
WS If there is an overarching theme to the platform it is environmental transformation. Environmental journalists are constantly grappling with a topic of such depth and scale that no single story will ever be able to convey the reality of the current situation. This is why we use data to help put each story in its big picture context. Similarly, no data visualization is nuanced enough to communicate the complex forces driving these changes. GeoJournalism is an approach we’ve designed to tackle this conundrum by interrogating data and using the classic journalistic method to answer questions about why the patterns look the way they do.
AS What is the relationship to the journalists who produce the original content?
WS We take a networked approach to journalism. Ekuatorial has created syndication relationships with websites throughout Indonesia to aggregate their stories and distribute them to global audiences. One example of how this relationship plays out is our partnership with Global Forest Watch. GFW is a site dedicated to monitoring the status of the world’s forests and it is used by governments, business, and concerned individuals throughout the world. Ekuatorial publishes a stream of local stories on this global platform so that people using that site get their news directly from people who understand what is happening on the ground because that is their lived experience. Journalists in this regard are participating in a system where data from satellites is being verified from the ground through storytelling.
AS What is the goal of the site and to whom is it addressed?
WS Our goal is to provide a common space for people communicating about environmental issues in Indonesia to share their perspective and contribute to the documentation of evidence so that appropriate actions can be taken. Our audience is first and foremost an Indonesian one and our analytics show that to be the case. In audience surveys we’ve found that people who visit the site are primarily the general public with significant segments of journalists, organizers, and academics.
AS What is your own role in the development of Ekuatorial?
WS My responsibility as an organizer of a global network of environmental journalists is to support the growth and maturation of the community. In practice, my work varies from project to project and can be as simple as introducing network members who are interested in a common topic or as in-depth as joining a collaborative team. For Ekuatorial, I have been working with Ekuatorial’s managing editor Clara Rondonuwu from the research and design phases of the project.
AS When we met you also showed me another platform Internews is involved in called Infoamazonia.org. While Ekuatorial focuses on the Southeast Asian archipelago, Infoamazonia covers the loss of the Amazon forest in South America. Can you give a short summary of that project and explain how data and written stories are used there side by side.
WS Ekuatorial is in many ways a sibling site to InfoAmazonia and that is a natural relationship for projects focused on understanding and communicating about forest change. Not only do the sites share common topics and methodology but also technology. The project got its first spark when journalists in Indonesia saw InfoAmazonia and thought how it could be adapted to tell their stories. The team who built Ekuatorial included team members from Brazil and as is often the case with open source technology projects, elements from Ekuatorial ended up being integrated back into InfoAmazonia. We hope that these sites as well as the communities behind them end up growing up together.
AS Is this the vision for Ekuatorial, too?
WS There is certainly a unifying set of conditions that contribute to a common vision for the approach but as a website, Ekuatorial differs from InfoAmazonia in similar ways as Indonesia and the Amazon differ. Ekuatorial has a major focus on ocean topics as well as natural disasters since those are key parts of the Indonesian experience. I think that this vision is simply a product of the journalism network itself. Being part of a community of environmental journalists who share a common interest and challenge yields opportunities for ideas to be share across vast distances in meaningful ways.
AS This interview is going to be published on a blog of an international network of curators. Most of us approach environmental, or more-than-human urgencies from a background in art or aesthetic theory. How could cultural producers like those from our network interface with your group’s platforms and possibly distribute both the material and the issues the sites are highlighting?
WS It’s interesting you mention aesthetics theory because without a doubt the visual properties of cartographic presentation and the connotations they have with objective truth have been an important element of the appeal of GeoJournalism. Artists and designers have had a leading role in developing the visual identity of Ekuatorial and InfoAmazonia. Similarly networks like Synapse and the Earth Journalism Network share quite a bit in common as well. If the arts is responsible for cultural production and media responsible for the production of news/information, we both are at our best when we are focused on producing truth. Understanding how these approaches compliment each other is leads to meaningful collaboration.
That said, we recognize that it is becoming increasing difficult to produce information that has an impact on culture. Media is a very fractured space and so we have been thinking carefully about how we facilitate the distribution of information with technology. We try to make it as easy as possible to use Ekutorial’s maps and data in many contexts. One example of this is the sharing features of the sites, which allow the audience to remix the layers into a custom presentation and then share them with an iFrame embed code.
AS One of the most compelling aspects of Infoamazonia is the interactive deforestation timeline you showed me at desmatamento.infoamazonia.org. Who is behind the research of this timeline and are more of these planned—also regarding Southeast Asian ecosystem losses?
WS Thank you, the story was compelling enough to influence the national conversation about deforestation policies in Brazil. The Desmatamento project was a collaboration between a team of journalists, designers, software engineers, and academics who each brought a unique attribute to the team. As the skills for storytelling change, we have increasingly seen that the characteristics of the teams that produce these sites adapt as well. In regards to Southeast Asia, we have projects that are currently in development. I’d be happy to do a follow up interview as they come together.
All images: Landsat visualizations of global forest loss from 2000 to 2012 (red). From earthenginepartners.appspot.com