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The People’s Weather Map

During the 2016 Digital Bridges Workshop, Barbara Eckstein (English, University of Iowa) and Casey Oberlin (Sociology, Grinnell College) and identified a common interest in the role social media might play in conveying public attitudes and stories about science. Since Eckstein already had developed a digital humanities project, The Peoples’ Weather Map, that housed severe weather stories in Iowa and was designed as a climate change education project, they agreed that they would focus their exploration of social media on the topic of severe weather and climate change in Iowa.

In their 2017 Digital Bridges summer collaboration, the group met to discuss questions about adding social media, then conducting a preliminary search and compiling a small database. The large question was whether social media is in fact a viable source of stories and data about severe weather and climate change. Could a credibly large data set be compiled of public attitudes toward severe weather? Which social media platforms might be the best source of information? In the fall 2016 follow-up meeting to the Digital Bridges Workshop, Oberlin and Eckstein identified a first priority of updating The Peoples’ Weather Map website so that it was more rhetorically effective and friendlier both to editors and public users. Working with Liz Rodrigues, the group tackled the challenge of acquiring a database large enough to do significant sociological research and focused on Twitter data related to conversations about extreme weather.

Eckstein plans to recruit UI students to add historical and contemporary stories to The Peoples’ Weather Map, including from sources acquired through Facebook. One or two of these students would also be trained to conduct oral interviews for The Peoples’ Weather Map as well as for the Flood Resilience Project, part of IIHR’s Iowa Watershed Approach. During the fall, Grinnell students would report their findings at UI and vice versa. In the spring, both groups of students would have the opportunity to present their findings as part of the UI theme semester and the UI Informatics Symposium.

From a humanist perspective, the partnership has been useful in that the group has uncovered a number of provocative leads for story ideas and greater historical detail. From a social science perspective, the partnership has not yet yielded a significant dataset that can be analyzed. But for all partners the experience has provided insight into what might be available on social media and the challenges of working with this media as a source of researchable information rather than as a means of communication. Before the partners can move toward a next phase of this project, they need to see the completed PWM website and need access to the tweets they identified for purchase so that these may be analyzed. An important focus this academic year is on student learning as they participate in the partnership, exchange their findings, and publicly present their work.

Barbara Eckstein is a professor of English at the University of Iowa, and she participated in the 2016 Digital Bridges Summer Institute. Kathleen (Casey) Oberlin is an assistant professor of sociology at Grinnell College, and she also participated in the 2016 Digital Bridges Summer Institute. Eckstein and Oberlin also received funding for a 2017 Summer Collaboration, developing social media aspects of the People’s Weather Map. This branch of the project features a wide range of collaborators, including Grinnell librarian Liz Rodrigues and graduate student Chris Dolle (English, Iowa).