MIT Unveils Civic Tools for Communities Affected by Natural Gas

    by Andrew Whitacre
    November 26, 2010

    Last Friday, MIT Center for Future Civic Media’s director Chris Csikszentmihalyi formally released extrAct, a suite of Internet-based databasing, mapping and communications technologies for use by communities impacted by natural gas development.

    extrAct is targeted not only at communities and landowners but also at the journalists who cover local development and environment issues. It is a novel platform for community education and civic action.

    While outlets such as 60 Minutes have picked up on both the unprecedented opportunities and health risks of American natural gas extraction, which is touted as the country’s path to energy independence, Csikszentmihályi and his team built extrAct specifically to help citizens take advantage of those opportunities while mitigating or pushing back strongly against their risks.


    “Land owners around the country are facing significant challenges when coping with leaking wells, industrial traffic, and air and water pollution,” Csikszentmihályi told me in the lead-up to extrAct’s release. “They have serious concerns about their health and property value. The extrAct tools give them ways to document, share, and communicate their experiences. For the first time, a rural landowner in Pennsylvania who is contemplating signing a lease can read about the experiences of a rancher in Colorado who has been dealing with these issues for twenty years. And an epidemiologist, journalist, or regulator using extrAct can survey a wide range of citizen’s experiences.”

    extrAct Technologies

    extrAct, like other Center projects such as Sourcemap and Between the Bars, is a News Challenge-style technology: It meets a crucial information using new technology whose end-users, conversely, aren’t necessarily tech-savvy. extrAct consists of three such technologies thus far, each easy to use at the community level:

    Landman Report Card (www.landmanreportcard.com) — LRC is a review system for landowners to rate their interactions with gas industry salespeople. These salespeople —known as landmen— are often independent contractors who work in a loosely regulated, high-pressure environment. LRC helps identify the landmen in your area who make reasonable offers in your interest, while outing the dishonest ones. The LRC website also offers a crash course for what to do if a landman comes knocking.


    News Positioning System (www.newspositioning.com) — NPS allows anyone to map a news article in context. Landowners and community groups often have folders bursting with years’ worth of newspaper clippings on gas leaks, lawsuits against industry, and more…but with no easy way to share them. NPS solves this problem. If the story is online, you can map it, along with all other local stories on the same topic.

    WellWatch (http://scrapper.media.mit.edu/wiki/WellWatch) — State agencies track and publish information on well leaks and industry non-compliance with safety and environmental regulations. But that information is often hidden in badly managed websites and poorly designed databased. WellWatch converts those hard-to-navigate state databases containing information about the oil and gas industry to the same platform used by Wikipedia. Impacted communities and individuals can more easily access data about wells and operators in their communities. And more importantly, they can then add to this repository their own considerable knowledge.

    If your community is affected by the natural gas industry, try these tools or contact us for more information: [email protected].

    Tagged: 60 minutes center for future civic media extract gas mit natural gas

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