Covering Miami’s Rising Seas: Sensors, Public Data & Politics

    by Robert Gutsche
    December 9, 2014
    Miami high school and college journalism students report about high tides on South Beach in October 2014. Image by eyesontherise.org

    Miami, no more.

    That’s a scenario we’re facing in South Florida as the world’s seas continue to rise.

    In short, we aren't waiting for news to happen -- we're making news through our efforts and becoming as much a part of the story as sea level rise, itself.


    FIU advertising and PR students produced an explanatory video on sea level rise. Credit: eyesontherise.org.

    Over the “past half-century,” The Washington Post reported in October, “average sea levels in South Florida have risen by 4 to 6 inches, an extensively documented increase that accelerated since the early 1990s.” And based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, easily one of the most well-respected reports on climate change, by 2100, the world’s sea levels will have risen by two feet more than current levels.

    The effects on Miami, where my university is based, will be devastating, a BusinessWeek story reports.


    Scientists and government leaders say that they can only slow the effects, which include the silent rise of sea water that continues to push through porous limestone upon which Miami and South Florida are built.

    The immediate problem, though, is that civic and economic leaders in South Florida aren’t talking about what’s ahead for us, besides the continued potential for luxury condo business and high-priced living. One might think sea level rise would be a good story for local press, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Addressing The Press As Part Of The Problem

    A journalistic “trailer” talks about FIU’s journalism project. Credit: eyesontherise.org.

    few examples stand apart. But many news outlets continue to publish stories about what the future holds for the high-life, including floating mansions, with little discussion about what life may be like for those who won’t be able to afford to live here as the water gets higher.

    Enter eyesontherise.org, a project of Florida International University journalism students and the Online News Association, the result of our 2014-2015 Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education award designed to change how journalism is taught. (Deadline for the next round of funding is Jan. 15).

    Because of that grant, faculty and students in our journalism school have dived into covering issues surrounding rising sea levels in South Florida. Students have taken advantage of new mapping and app courses, as well as traditional broadcasting and writing courses, to build a dialogue around the many challenges to local life brought about by climate change.


    The project uses sensors to measure water salinity.

    Furthermore, through classroom collaboration between our FIU students and 190 students who attend MAST @ FIU, a public high school based at FIU, we’ve focused on journalism innovation, building coqui sensors from Public Lab to create our own data sources related to water quality and salinity during high tides on Miami Beach. With a focus on citizen science and sensor journalism, we’re forming new news sources with which to cover this topic.

    Here at FIU, we don’t know if we can solve all — or any — of the problems related to sea level rise. We may not even be able to totally influence how the story is covered in all of the South Florida press.

    But we can try.

    News about our project’s efforts to conduct crowd hydrology that are designed to increase community engagement has garnered national attention from NBC’s TODAY, the Weather Channel, and from local media, including WPBT2 our local media partner. Other print and online outlets picked up our efforts, too, including the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, a sister paper to the Miami Herald. Students from other classes in our journalism school were also stepped-up with their own reporting.

    Media were particularly interested in a national press conference we hosted on King Tide Day, the day when tides around the world are at their highest and that often result in water lapping the shorelines and city streets on Miami Beach.

    A screenshot from the award-winning documentary, "South Florida's Rising Seas," shows a moment of massive flooding in Miami Beach in 2012. Flooding is a daily occurrence throughout South Florida as seas rise.

    Screenshot from “South Florida’s Rising Seas,” Courtesy of Kate MacMillin and Juliet Pinto.

    Yet this grant has been an opportunity to do more than just journalism: It’s been about teaching and learning and questioning how far we can push everyday lesson plans, collaborations, and course projects to move beyond even the most integrated of journalism curricula. (The video at the very top of this page, for instance, was produced by public relations and advertising students — not traditional journalism students.)

    And, this process has presented several interesting questions to ponder.

    Journalism, Advertising & PR: Where Waters Meet?

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    Lily Bui, a graduate student at MIT Skypes into a sea level rise rally. Photo by eyesontherise.org.

    While our project has been focused on creating journalism that will result in an increase of programming audiences for our media partner (a 30-minute, student-produced show is scheduled to appear there in Spring or Summer), our group has focused on the civic nature of this project.

    Students from advertising, public relations, digital media studies, journalism and broadcasting have spent just as much time planning public events to garner community support and building partnerships by drafting missions statements and project outcomes. Students have worked to brand our project as one that calls for public discussion and dissection of sea level rise.

    FIU journalism students produce a PSA to announce their project. Credit: eyesontherise.org.

    In short, we aren’t waiting for news to happen — we’re making news through our efforts and becoming as much a part of the story as sea level rise, itself. We care about what happens to South Florida — and the people in it. We are into educating the public as much as making journalism. Many of our students feel the same way.

    In the end, the project continues to provide opportunities for our students to challenge their own methods of journalism and coursework to blend communication approaches to meet a shared aim.

    Changes In Viewing ‘Audience’: Who Counts?

    Data from sensors used by students to measure the salinity of water during high tides in South Florida are represented in terms of sound frequencies. Such visualizations can widen audiences by making data fun.

    Students visualize the salinity of water. Photo by eyesontherise.org.

    When we began our project, we were interested in traditional news audiences – those who we thought would turn to social media and to legacy media for their news. But we know that while we encourage citizens to turn to the news products we create, not all will click to see it. So what audience(s) are we missing? Better yet, who should our audience(s) be?

    Over the past semester, we’ve come to consider the media attention we’ve received as a moment of community engagement, an extension of our journalism that’s resulted in creating awareness and shaping media discourse.

    If we can also view the construction of news during a press conference, including one-on-one interactions with members of the media and of the public during that time as a means of both information-gathering and information-delivery, for instance, our audiences expand beyond what can be captured by computer analytics and these messages also engage the public in ways that may encourage them to become stakeholders in news engagement.

    Progressive Pedagogy: Can Students Be Teachers?


    FIU grad Melissa Mendoza teaches high school students about visualization. Photo by eyesontherise.org.

    Our approaches to teaching in this project may not differ too much from the principles of the popular — and sometimes controversialteaching hospital model. But, we might be doing one thing differently: Our students are becoming teachers themselves.

    Students have been collaborating by presenting at our public King Tide Day event, collaborating to improve the reporting and the design of the school’s student newspaper and yearbook. College students — and faculty — have increasingly taken an interest in blending class lessons with high school students to, in the words of one college senior, “mentor the next generation.” We have also found that many of our students share what they have learned about communication and sea level rise with their friends and families, expanding the reach of this project.

    All of this seems like pretty progressive grassroots communication at the core of much scholarship on community-university engagement and that engages students to teach each other. But this part of the project also may highlight how journalism education — and journalism itself — may, without much prodding, simply lend itself to these types of interaction, in which journalists teach themselves, and teach each other, the trade.

    Next Steps: How Do We Tell Stories About Sea Level Rise?

    The next phase of our project includes extending the testing of crowdsourcing hydrological and geographical information through storytelling about our South Florida communities — including in Spanish, which many of our students speak.

    More specifically, our students, community and media partners are using open-source tools and public data to develop the Climate Risk Toolbox App, which will:

    • help inform citizens of South Florida about the impact of sea level rise on their homes and businesses;
    • provide a tool to document flooding, which is under-reported in South Florida and is a sign of inundated infrastructure and an increase in water throughout the region;
    • let citizens view flood reports from a variety of public data sources;
    • inform users of tide levels, a phenomenon that is also related to flooding.​

    Students localize sea level rise to one neighborhood near Miami. Credit: eyesontherise.org.

    Our next steps also include involving high school students in one of our college-level visual storytelling courses in which students will work on projects, including: the mitigation of nearby mangroves to examine the effects of sea level rise on the plants; storytelling about salt water intrusion and the effects on local infrastructure; and audience assessment and measurement related to our journalism.

    But our future challenges are formidable. For instance, even though our project is non-political in that we can’t — and don’t — endorse public candidates or private companies in our efforts, climate change is far from apolitical. Especially in South Florida.

    Already, some of our partnerships with local governments, national environmental groups and public agencies, and other units within our university, have put our communication efforts in crisis mode several times, particularly in terms what information about sea level rise should be presented to national audiences — and how.

    Soon, we likely may face similar challenges as one of our projects examines the potential effects of sea level rise on South Florida property values. We’ll just have to keep in mind that playing politics may simply be the price of trying new things.

    Robert Gutsche, Jr. is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. His journalism and research focuses on geographic place-making and the role of power in news coverage of everyday life. Follow eyesontherise.org at @SLRSoFla.

    Tagged: climate change education environment online news association

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