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Sharp suits, warm beer – Guinness, sapeurs and the seduction of Congolese fashion

A Guinness ad featuring a group of splendidly-dressed men from Congo-Brazzaville, called Le Sapeurs, is making a splash online. The men in the ad (below) are members of Le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, a group of middle class Congolese in both Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who collect, assemble and model sharp, colorful suits that evoke Parisian fashions of decades ago. The message of the Guinness ad comes in the opening line of the voiceover: “In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.” You may carry bricks or paint car parts for a living, but you can choose a life where, for some hours of the week, you are a fashion icon and a hero to your neighborhood.

AdWeek featured the ad, and an accompanying documentary, as their ad of the day, noting “When global marketers portray Africa, the goal is usually humor or pity. Rarely do brands treat Africans as cultural equals, much less as inspirational role models.” The BBC, Slate and The Guardian have all commented on the video, most noting that it’s surprising to see an affirmative, inspirational African narratives that actually features Africans as the main subject (as opposed to, say, GoToMeeting’s “Kenya Water Project”, in which hip, wired young people across the world – none in Africa – get together to “save” a distant other.)

This ad follows another striking Guinness ad, in which a spirited game of wheelchair basketball is revealed to include one wheelchair-bound player and five players without disability, who are learning to play wheelchair basketball as a way of spending time with their friend. The video has drawn praise for being heartwarming and compelling, and critique for being patronizing to the disabled and for not correcting a more general problem, the invisibility of the disabled in advertising except as props to demonstrate the moral courage of others. I found the ad more moving than manipulative, but then again, I spend far more time thinking about media portrayals of Africans than I do about media portrayals of the wheelchair-bound, so I’m far less attuned to the critiques the commenters raise.

I’ve been thinking about possible critiques of the Guinness Sapeurs ad and have come up with three thus far. One is that Guinness is pretty late to the game in featuring Les Sapeurs. Spanish photographer Héctor Mediavilla released a striking set of photos of Sapeurs in Brazzaville in 2003 (see also this collection), and Daniele Tamagni published a beautiful photo book of Sapeurs in 2009. Sapeurs came to mainstream attention last year when Solange Knowles featured several Congolese sapeurs in the video for her song “Losing You”. And news outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and others have examined sape from the perspectives of dandyism, the sapeur disapora in France, the cost of being a sapeur, and the contrast between the flair of the sapeurs and the stark nature of their surroundings.


Solange Knowles, “Losing You”

These last points – the cost of being a sapeur in an extremely poor country – is the core of another critique of the Guinness ad, and of sape more generally. At its heart, sape is a consumerist movement, where the creativity involved is in the hustle to assemble expensive outfits by having them sent from family abroad, or by borrowing clothes from other sapeurs. Stephanie McCrummen’s feature on sape in Kinshasa focuses heavily on an apparent obsession with the authenticity of the clothes and their expense. Is sape just a more elegant obsession with bling, a form of posturing that focuses primarily on the cost and inaccessibility of objects rather than a deeper form of creativity? Is there something perverse about wearing a pair of alligator shoes that cost half the per capita income of a nation?

A third critique would note that Africans often get credit for style and fashion, but rarely for weightier pursuits. It’s not especially radical to acknowledge the color and creativity of African music, art, and fashion, but would be far more exciting to see Guinness celebrating the startup culture of the iHub or the new model of African universities emerging at Ashesi University.

All that said, I think Guinness is trying to do the right thing in trying to offer a surprising and different picture of central Africa to viewers who likely associate the region with conflict, if with anything at all. The opening shot of the Guinness ad shows a field on fire, which immediately made me brace myself for an all-too-typical narrative of Africa in conflict. The ad pivots within the first second, showing us the burning of a sugarcane field as an example of the quotidian labor the sapeurs engage in, a set up for their transformation from laborers to fashion plates. It works – for me, at least – because it acknowledges what we expect to see about Brazzaville, then shows us something unexpected, surprising and inspiring.


Trailer for Michael Power ad, “Critical Assignment”

It’s worth contrasting this ad from Guinness with a previous campaign, which centered on an African superhero, Michael Power. Power – played by a Jamaican who was raised in Britain – was a James Bond figure, always righting wrongs committed by corrupt politicians and their foreign backers, and relaxing at the end of a hard campaign with the damsel he rescued and a bottle of Guinness. The campaign was enormously successful on the continent, but virtually impossible to imagine running in other global markets. By contrast, the Sapeurs ad was intended for the UK market, but could easily run on the continent, and features a form of actual African superheroes, not an imaginary one.

In “Rewire“, I talk about the importance of culture as a pathway towards understanding the history, politics and challenges of unfamiliar people and places. My student, Catherine d’Ignazio, is exploring this idea in her project Terra Incognita, which allows you to monitor where in the world you encounter through your web browser and get introductions to unfamiliar countries. Catherine talks about the importance of “seducing” a reader to pay attention to a topic she’s not already interested in, offering images, video, maps and compelling narrative to capture attention to the unfamiliar.

I found myself seduced by Guinness’s ad into spending a chunk of my day learning about the political and cultural significance of sape, which included a dive into the history of Congo-Brazzaville’s civil war, and into Mobutu Sese Seko’s drive for “Authenticité“, or the Zairianization of the current Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Mobutu models the abacost while hanging with Caspar Weinberger, courtesy of Wikipedia

As As Joshua Keating notes in his piece for Slate, sape is, in part, a reaction to Mobutu’s attempts to cleanse Congo of colonial influence. Authenticité involved replacing colonial names with indigenous ones, and banning western suits and ties in favor of the abacost (short for “à bas le costume”, French for “down with the suit”), a local variant of the Mao suit. As Mobutu and his corrupt cronies lost popularity, wearing western fashion became a form of rebellion. Soukous musician Papa Wemba became the leader of this rebel faction, proudly wearing French fashions purchased on his international travels and advertising the labels in interviews and in his songs. The contrast between Mobutu’s ban on western fashion and the embrace of the sapeur movement by the nation’s most popular musician helped expose the dissatisfaction of ordinary Zairians with Mobutu’s one man rule. (I’m thankful to wikipedia Skomorokh, whose contribution to the Sapeur article has somehow not been incorporated to the main article, which is, unfortunately, pretty weak. Skomorokh points to sapeur as a form of rebellion, linking to James Brooke’s 1988 article on sapeurs in the New York Times.)

I’d not expected to spend today thinking about cultural rebellion against autocrats, but then again, I’d also not expected a global beverage company to promote Congolese culture to UK beer drinkers. Perhaps the admen and women at BBDO took their own script seriously: In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are. I’m glad Guinness has chosen to be a brand that’s trying to feature what’s unique, wonderful and positive about Africa.


Rest in peace, Teresa Peters

I got an email from an old friend today, the sort of mass email we send our friends and colleagues to update each other on our lives and goings on. I didn’t make it past the first line, because he opened his missive by mourning the death of Teresa Peters.

Teresa was a friend of mine, though we’d lost touch the past couple of years. I knew she had been battling breast cancer, but I didn’t know how gravely ill she was, nor did I know that she passed away on December 16 of last year.

I got to know Teresa a little more than a decade ago through the globally far-flung, but personally close network of people working on technology for international development in sub-Saharan Africa. I was running Geekcorps, an NGO I’d founded to provide technology training to small businesses in the developing world. Teresa was running Bridges.org, an NGO she’d founded to ensure that ICT (information and communication technology) had real and positive impacts in the lives of people in the developing world. We founded our organizations in the same year, 2000, she in South Africa and me in Ghana, and moved in many of the same circles. We were both named “Global Leaders for Tomorrow” and later “Young Global Leaders” by the World Economic Forum, and worked together to try to navigate the surreal experience that is the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, trying to explain why the work each of us was doing to the rich and powerful people who populate that event. One year, we shared a flight from Accra to Geneva and roomed on the same floor of a respiratory hospital in Davos, the only accommodations either of us could afford given the fragile budgets of our organizations.

While most of us working in technology for development were passionate (and often pathological) optimists, Teresa was an optimistic critic. She asked some of the hardest questions the field needed to address and was relentless in demanding answers. Is information technology a shortcut to improved economic and human development? Who was making choices about technology for developing countries? How could developing nations build the talent they would need to make decisions on their own and stop relying on people like Teresa and me? Bridges.org became the world’s leading think tank for skeptical, thoughtful questions about the field, and I approached her with trepidation for help in evaluating the work we were doing with Geekcorps, knowing full well that if she thought our work was ineffective, she’d pull no punches in assessing our work.

Teresa Peters

I admired Teresa for her relentless questioning, for her demands that we challenge our assumptions about technology and about development. I was most challenged by her insistence that we move beyond a world where expertise about the developing world comes from experts outside of the developing world. Teresa worked in Cape Town to build a team of African policy analysts who could ask these same sharp questions about technology and development she asked, informed by local understanding. It was a difficult task, and one the international development community continues to wrestle with. I left Geekcorps in 2004 and the organization folded shortly after; Teresa left Bridges for the Gates Foundation in 2006, leaving Bridges locally led, a testament to her commitment to building a strong, skilled team in South Africa.

She and I were in touch sporadically during her time at Gates and reconnected in 2010. Teresa had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had returned to Licking County, Ohio to be closer to family and friends, and to fight her disease on her own terms, in her hometown. Only now am I learning that Teresa chose not to fight her cancer with chemotherapy or radiation, but focused on nutrition, exercise and connection to her community. She survived far longer than doctors had predicted and, from what I can tell, had an awesome, loving and full life in the community she loved.

In 2010, Teresa was starting a new project, a book on evaluating impact, the question she was always most passionate about. I connected her with friends at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC, and we talked about the blessings and challenges of splitting your life between a small, rural community and issues that are global in scale, a challenge I navigate as well from Berkshire County, MA. And then, after a flurry of email, we fell out of touch.

There’s a tendency to assume that, in this digital age, we won’t lose touch with our friends, at least our digitally-enabled ones. (And Teresa was that – this FAQ from 1995 reminds us that she was working on issues of the internet and accessibility years before most people realized the internet was an interesting place to be.) But Teresa focused her attention and her limited time on her community in her last years. She worked on local environmental issues, opening the Going Green Store in Granville, OH with her partner Michael, and on documenting her approach to cancer through a book titled “A New Kind Of Patient”, which urged people battling chronic conditions to be active and activist patients. I am sorry I didn’t get to experience more of this period of Teresa’s life, but I also sense that this part of Teresa’s life was consciously lived with her remarkable friends and family in Ohio, not with the extended tribe of friends she found all over the world in her globally-focused work.

I am of an age when I’m starting to lose peers, friends who’ve left us too soon. For those of us who’ve lived our lives, at least in part, online, it’s a particular form of melancholy to ask Google how we’ve touched and changed the world, because the answers are always unsatisfactory. Some of Teresa’s papers remain online (like this examination of “e-Readiness”, one of the core ideas about ICT4D put forth by the World Bank and others in the last decade), but it’s clear that her importance and legacy to those of us who care about technology and development isn’t well reflected by her digital traces. What is clear is that Teresa was embraced, loved and deeply mourned by those she grew up with and chose to close her life with, that for all her connections around the world, she valued the connections to her family, her friends and her community most of all. I think there’s a lesson in Teresa’s life and her choices for those of us who work to change the world locally and globally, in ways big or small.

I miss you, Teresa, and I am grateful for your example, for your questions, your challenges and your remarkable life. Rest in peace.


Edmond Gaible’s memories of Teresa
Teresa’s obituary in the Newark (OH) Advocate
Teresa’s web site


Ta-Nehesi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT on opinion journalism

Tom Levenson introduces Ta-Nehesi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg , who are in conversation tonight at MIT’s Stata Center on the topic of opinion journalism. The event is hosted by CMS/W, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and Writing department, where Coates is a scholar in residence. Both Coates and Hertzberg are giant figures in contemporary journalism, from different professional generations.

Coates begins by admitting that he was burned out at the end of his last semester at MIT, but ended up missing his students a week after he left Cambridge. Teaching writing, he tells us, is deeply different from writing. Once you write well, you write on autopilot. But you can’t teach writing without thinking about the art form. Coates was reminded of this when Hertzberg came to MIT to talk with his students – not only is Hertzberg a master of opinion journalism, but he’s deeply insightful about the process of writing and of constructing complex and subtle arguments.

Coates asks Hertzberg about his process: does he craft individual sentences or whole arguments? Hertzberg confesses to being a difficult writer – he struggles over sentences, particularly the first sentences in a piece. “It’s important to be fresh, to avoid cliches”. And while Hertzberg has roadmaps for his arguments, he explains that he spends a great deal of time crafting each sentence, ensuring the tone and imagery is right to construct the tone and ideas he needs to convey.

Prompted by Coates, Hertzberg identifies Orwell and the Harvard Crimson as his most important writing teachers. He explains that, in writing for the Crimson, your copy was posted into giant comment books where editors ripped the work to pieces. Good pieces were marked “OOTAG” – one of the all time greats – and poor ones marked “PTS” – Pour to sea. All comments were signed – you knew exactly who was savaging you. So Hertzberg’s experience at Harvard came through the practice of newspaper writing, not the classroom. (He tells us that, if there hadn’t been a draft for Vietnam, he’d have dropped out and worked for a local paper, and likely burned out.)

Hertzberg loves the appearance of newspapers – he tells us about a cross-country trip where he bought and saved local papers, documenting the journey one front page at a time. In his work at the Crimson, he loved laying out pages and wonders if he would have become a graphic designer had he chosen a career more deliberately. “That sense of proportion, balance and beauty” informed his work with the New Republic, his concern about how the magazine’s cover appeared and informs his work today.

Coates confesses that his New York literati friends wonder whether people can actually write at MIT, and explains that this is a form of defensiveness from people who can write, but don’t understand math and science. Impressed by the quality of his writing students here, Coates asks Hertzberg whether it’s possible to teach writing. Hertzberg explains that editors – at least the really good ones – are writing teachers. “They show you what’s wrong and you can’t help but learn from that.”

Hertzberg explains that his working method isn’t the only possible way – it’s possible to be a columnist without caring about sentences. He cites Paul Krugman as someone who is less obsessed with craft than with creating lucid, readable arguments. “If you have a great opinion and can express it clearly,” you ma be able to be a great opinion writer without being a great writer. Krugman, Hertzberg argues, has a narrow set of well-developed beliefs and explores them again and again without boring the reader.

There are many ways to report, Hertzberg says: talking with friends, reading online, getting out of the house and experiencing events. He cites Murray Kempton as a columnist who got experienced the world on a bicycle and used that experience to inform his writing. But it’s possible to use any number of methods to build great opinion columns.

Coates notes that Hertzberg writes about once every other week and wonders how he would write if he produced three columns a week. Hertzberg allows as his writing would come to a screetching halt with his suicide. Writing beautiful multiple times a week parallels Michael Jordan’s efforts in basketball. Coates notes that writers feel guilty about being slow writers; Hertzberg notes that Coates has the gift of Sitzfleish, the ability to sit in the chair and produce words.

Blogging is easier than opinion column writing, Coates and Hertzberg argue, because blog posts don’t need to have a shape, while columns need to. As a result, Hertzberg explains, blogging is a recreation. This isn’t to say it’s not worth reading, but that it’s a different pursuit. Hertzberg notes that Coates’s blog serves as a diary on his other writing, giving insight on what he’s developing.

Coates talks about the lowered barriers to writing in public these days. He began writing in public when the New Republic printed an excerpt from The Bell Curve, a notorious exploration of race and achievement in the US. Coates was furious about the piece and notes how hard it was to share his frustation, as a student at Howard University surrounded by brilliant black people, and have that opinion heard. Hertzberg notes that while everyone can have a press now, we don’t all get the fleet of trucks that delivers the papers. “It remains to be seen whether competition, whether this immense supply, will increase the quality of writing.” The proportion of well-informed opinions is clearly smaller than in years past – whether or not the cream will rise to the top is less obvious. And it’s quite obvious that it’s much harder to make a living as a writer.

“Writing is becoming a group activity. It’s something that a large number of people do part time.” Hertzberg explains that writing used to be a living, even if not a great living. Coates wonders whether a Harvard Crimson byline still guarantees future employment in journalism as it used to. Hertzberg explains that the paper is, by choice, far less selective about writers than it used to be, and that this is likely a good thing for the institution.

Hertzberg notes that he spends as much time reading blogs as he does reading newspapers and magazines. He’s bothered that he misses some important stories. (He religiously reads the New York Review of Books, the New Republic and less religiously, the Nation.) “Blogs are addictive. Every hour, you take a little snort of it,” he says.

Coates asks about the importance of writing with conviction: if you don’t believe it, I’m never going to believe it as the reader. And given that there’s so many things you can do other than writing an essay, you’d better grab the reader by the collar and demand attention. Why would someone do something this hard?, he asks Hertzberg. The simple answer: being a newspaperman was the only thing Hertzberger wanted to do.

Hertzberg explains the romance of newspaper journalism, the emotion that led people like Carl Bernstein to work their way up from copy boy to reporter. It’s probably healthier and more professional, he notes, but some of the romance may be gone.

Coates thought Hertzberg must be an effortless writer. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth – he keeps an air mattress in his office and usually ends up sleeping in the office at least once, sometimes twice, during a column. But he doesn’t see a correlation between suffering and the quality of his writing, and if he could find a way to work without suffering as badly, he’d gladly claim it.

Tom Levenson offers a first question: Is the degredation of our political culture linked to the status of our opinion writing? Hertzberg notes that it is possible to live in an echo chamber and those echo chambers are likely damaging our politics. But he wonders if things were better in the age of strong gatekeepers. We all live in our own universes, he tells us – the Republicans may live in one of more epistemic closure.

Levenson persists: as a science writer, he’s seen the polling shift on climate change and wonders to what extent that shift (away from a belief in human-influenced climate change) is the responsibility of opinion journalism. Hertzberg notes that the blame is more properly placed on the political system. If we’d not faced filibuster, we’d have had a cap and trade system for carbon emissions. How can we take climate change seriously if our government doesn’t do anything about it? “Our politican institutions can’t give us what we want, and eventually we stop wanting it. We blame the failure on the media,” rather than on the actual machinery of government that is supposed to solve our problems. Hertzberg explains that the filibuster is his “unified field theory” – he writes about it as much as his editors will allow him to.

“The constitution, an incredibly advanced machine for 1789, isn’t working so well. But observing that isn’t as easy as figuring how to fix it.”

Patsy Baudoin asks where the joy is in writing, given how much Hertzberg suffers for his art. He notes that there’s a big pleasure in getting these pieces done, a great deal of pleasure in having the work praised, and little pleasures associated with a well-placed phrase. But those pleasures are counterbalanced by the dread of not finishing the piece.

A questioner notes that while government may be broken, figures like the Koch Brothers have had enormous influence on debates like climate change. He then asks what bloggers and aggregators Hertzberg finds most useful, and what he and Coates think about Greenwald’s writing about Snowden and his new journalistic project. Hertzberg identifies Andrew Sullivan’s blog as his favorite, followed by Coates and Fallows at the Atlantic. Talking Points Memo merits a daily visit, as does the Guardian. In addressing Koch, Hertzberg suggests organizations accept as many gifts as possible, as a theatre paid for by the Koch brothers represents lost opportunity for the right.

In addressing Snowden and Greenwald, Hertzberg thinks of them as inevitable historical figures, genies that cannot be put back into the bottle. We need a polity that does what it’s supposed to do and can live with what these revelations have exposed. He admits this isn’t an answer with great moral clarity, but that he’s still wrestling with these implications.

Coates wonders how journalists who call for Greenwald’s arrest can consider themselves to be journalists. He cites the conversation between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald in the New York Times yesterday and suggests that Greenwald has a tendency to piss people off. In the piece, Greenwald demands Keller to explain why the New York Times’s inconsistency on use of the word “torture” is considered “objective”. That’s a deeply important distinction, and one he is glad Greenwald is demanding be addressed.

In addition to the blogs Hertzberg reads, Coates namechecks Grantland, The Atavist, New York Magazine, and The Toast, a small blog he finds consistently hilarious.

A questioner, a science writing grad student, notes that there’s a lot of trash journalism that’s hiding the quality journalism being produced. How do we feature and highlight the best journalism being produced? Hertzberg warns that we shouldn’t glorify the past too much: “Most journalism has always been pretty dreadful. More people have been interested in the contemporary Kim Kardashian than the contemporary Glenn Greenwald or Bill Keller.” He suggests that we’re at a “Gutenberg moment”, wondering when and how journalism will eventually settle. In sheer numbers, he argues, there is more good journalism done than ever, but finding and collating it is a problem.

Another question asks about journalism as a profession. Hertzberg notes that journalism is now both more professional and more compatible with poverty. He suggests that no one go into journalism in a half-hearted way. For Hertzberg, journalism was the path of least resistance – it’s not today.

Tom Friedman at the New York Times, George Will at the Washington Post seem to hold their jobs forever, one questioner observes. Would journalism be healthier with journalistic term limits? Should columnists have the job security that Supreme Court justices have? Coates wonders how much influence columnists actually have on the culture, and suggests that they more often reflect the culture. For Coates, it’s important to write in different ways – the short form of the blog, the long form for The Atlantic, his occasional columns in the New York Times. Each exercises a different set of literary muscles and he suggests it would be better for the writers than for the audiences.

A former student at MIT notes how valuable she found Coates’s writing about the roots of libertarianism as she reacted to the Occupy movement. She wonders whether Coates will piece together his writings in the news into a long form? Coates suggests that this is what he actually does. He uses the blog as a place to develop ideas he builds in longer formats. “It’s a record of me thinking things out. I have no idea what effect I’m going to have on people thinking about Ron Paul… I don’t really write to convince people.” Coates writes by arguing with himself and believes that his strongest work comes from that process of argument, testing out arguments and seeing what works.

A questioner asks Coates: “Who do you read that’s black?” Coates offers Wesley Morris as a regular read, then notes that most of the black writers he focuses on are historians, writing books, not writing magazine articles. (He later namechecks Jamel Bowie and Anna Holmes as black writers doing terrific work in short form.) “The only person I read who does what I do is William Jelani Cobb.” This suggests that we have a real problem with an absence of black authors in magazine writing. “But most of my influences come from books”, Coates explains, noting that James Baldwin is his most powerful influence.

Chris Peterson notes that Coates argued that you need to grab readers by the shirt collar and shake them. How do you do this when you’re working through your ideas and agenda in writing a piece, he asks Hertzberg. Hertzberg notes that he’s lucky – as a New Yorker writer, he doesn’t need to grab people by the lapels. Readers come to you with faith and trust, that your piece will be worth reading. It’s a giant advantage and privilege. Hertzberg is glad that the New Republic is under new management, but wonders whether the magazine is now working too hard to grab the reader’s lapels. These magazines have an intimate relationship with their readers and the journalism Hertzberg admires does less lapel grabbing. On the web, however, you need to do more of that grabbing because there are no blogs that have the reputation for quality that the New Yorker or New Republic has.

A questioner explains that he comes to Coates’s blog again and again not because of the great writing, but the ethical core. Coates notes that there are people who think George Will is a good writer. Coates says bluntly, “He lies,” in his pieces about football and violence and his pieces about climate change. Hertzberg talks about deep and shallow beauty – he enjoys reading some writers because they write beautifully, but argues that they don’t think beautifully.

A questioner asks both whether they read the Huffington Post and what they think of the quality. Hertzberg allows that the question is like referring to the universe and asking what you think of the quality of the stars. It’s vanity publishing writ large, he suggests, and wonders if there’s any way of reading the Huffington Post other than looking at who links to pieces of it. Coates simply doesn’t read it, and notes that HuffPo’s misleading headlines are another form of lying.

A final questioner wonders about the centrality of politics in opinion journalism. Do writers approach more gradual, slow issues more gradually than writing about fast-breaking political stories? Hertzberg argues that culture, ultimately, is more important than politics. But the stakes are higher in writing about politics, as the real-world consequences are great. Art is superior to journalism, and music is the most superior to all, Hertzberg asserts.

Coates agrees – music is superior because it crosses language. But he doesn’t think his process is different in writing politics versus culture, as he’s always trying to figure something out. Sometimes the most popular pieces Coates writes are the ones where he’s dismissing something as ridiculous, but writing those pieces isn’t very satisfying because it doesn’t involve working something out.


Citizen science versus NIMBY?

There are ten graduate students associated with the Center for Civic Media, half a dozen staff and a terrific set of MIT professors who mentor, coach, advise and lead research. But much of the work that’s most exciting at our lab comes from affiliates, who include visiting scholars from other universities, participants in the Media Lab Director’s fellows program and fellow travelers who work closely with our team.

Two of those Civic affiliates are Sean Bonner and Pieter Franken of Safecast. Safecast is a remarkable project born out of a desire to understand the health and safety implications of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unsatisfied with limited and questionable information about radiation released by the Japanese government, Joi Ito, Peter, Sean and others worked to design, build and deploy GPS-enabled geiger counters which could be used by concerned citizens throughout Japan to monitor alpha, beta and gamma radiation and understand what parts of Japan have been most effected by the Fukushima disaster.

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 10.25.44 AM

The Safecast project has produced an elegant map that shows how complicated the Fukushima disaster will be for the Japanese government to recover from. While there are predictably elevated levels of radiation immediately around the Fukushima plant and in the 18 mile exclusion zones, there is a “plume” of increased radiation south and west of the reactors. The map is produced from millions of radiation readings collected by volunteers, who generally take readings while driving – Safecast’s bGeigie meter automatically takes readings every few seconds and stores them along with associated GPS coordinates for later upload to the server.

It’s hard to know what an appropriate response to the Safecast data is – Safecast is careful to note that there’s no consensus about what’s “safe” in terms of radiation exposure… and that there’s questions to be asked both about bioaccumulation of beta radiation as well as exposure to gamma radiation. Their work provides an alternative set of information to official government statistics, a check on official measurements, which allows citizen scientists and activists to check on progress made on cleanup and remediation. This long and thoughtful blog post about the progress of government decontamination efforts, the cost-benefit of those efforts, and the government’s transparency or opacity around cleanup gives a sense for what Safecast is trying to do: provide ways for citizens to check and verify government efforts and understand the complexity of decisions about radiation exposure. This is especially important in Japan, as there’s been widespread frustration over the failures of TEPCO to make progress on cleaning up the reactor site, leading to anger and suspicion about the larger cleanup process.

For me, Safecast raises two interesting questions:
- If you’re not getting trustworthy or sufficient information from your government, can you use crowdsourcing, citizen science or other techniques to generate that data?
- How does collecting data relate to civic engagement? Is it a path towards increased participation as an engaged and effective citizen?

To have some time to reflect on these questions, I decided I wanted to try some of my own radiation monitoring. I borrowed Joi Ito’s bGeigie and set off for my local Spent Nuclear Fuel and Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste dry cask storage facility.

Monroe Bridge, MA is 20 miles away from my house, as the crow flies, but it takes over an hour to drive there. Monroe and Rowe are two of the smallest towns in Massachusetts (populations of 121 and 393, respectively) and are both devoid of any state highways – two of 16 towns in Massachusetts with that distinctively rural feature. Monroe, historically, is famous for housing workers who built the Hoosac Tunnel, and for a (long-defunct) factory that manufactured glassine paper. Rowe historically housed soapstone and iron pyrite mines. And both now are case studies for the challenge of revitalizing rural New England mill towns.


Yankee Rowe, prior to decommissioning

But from 1960 to 1992, Rowe and Monroe were best known for hosting Yankee Rowe, the third commercial nuclear power plant built in the United States. A 185 megawatt boiling water reactor, Yankee Rowe was a major employer and taxpayer in an economically depressed area… and also a major source of controversy. I was in school at Williams College, 13 miles from Yankee Rowe, when the NRC ordered the plant shut down in 1991, nine years before its scheduled license renewal, over fears that the reactor vessel might have grown brittle. The plant was a source of fascination for me as a student – the idea that a potentially dangerous nuclear power plant was so nearby led to a number of excursions, usually late at night, to stare at a glowing geodesic dome (the reactor containment building) from across the Sherman Reservoir.

Since 1995, Yankee Rowe has been going through the long process of decommissioning, with the goal of returning the site to wilderness or to other public uses – the plant’s website features an animated GIF of the disassembly process. But there’s a catch – the fuel rods. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel was supposed to start moving from civilian power plants like Yankee Rowe to underground government storage facilities in 1989. That hasn’t happened. Fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers and citizens to storing the waste at Yucca Mountain and from people who don’t want nuclear waste traveling through their communities enroute to storage facilities have meant that there’s no permanent place for the waste.

During the decades nuclear waste storage has been debated in Congress, more waste has backed up, and Yucca Mountain would no longer accomodate the 70,000 metric tons of waste that needs storage. The Department of Energy is now planning on an “interim” disposal site, ready by 2021, in the hopes of having a permanent disposal site online by 2048. The DOE needs the site, because companies like Yankee are suing the US government – successfully – to recover the costs of storing and defending the spent fuel in giant above-ground casks. (Yankee’s site has a great video of the process of moving these fuel rods from storage pools into concrete casks, a process that involves robotic cranes, robot welders and giant air bladders that help slide 110 ton concrete casks into position.)

So… at the end of a twisty rural road in a tiny Massachusetts town, there’s a set of 16 casks that contain the spent fuel of 30 years of nuclear plant operation, and those casks probably aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. So I took Joi’s geiger counter to visit them.

yankeesign

I’d been to Yankee Rowe before, and remembered being amused by the idea of a bucolic nuclear waste facility. The folks involved with Yankee Rowe have worked very hard to make the site as unobtrusive as possible – it’s marked by a discrete wooden sign, and the only building on site looks like an overgrown colonial house. Not visible from the road is the concrete pad where the 16 casks reside, but it’s 200 meters from the road and 400 meters from “downtown” Monroe Bridge.

I was curious whether I’d be able to detect any radiation using the Safecast tool. Sean and Pieter pride themselves on the fact that the bGeigie is a professional grade tool and routinely detects minor radiation emissions, like a neighbor who had a medical test that involved radioisotopes. I drove to Yankee Rowe late yesterday afternoon, took the bGeigie off my truck (it had been collecting data since I turned it on in Greenfield, the closest big town) and tried to get as close as I could to the casks.

nrcsign

That turned out to be not very close. Before I had time to read the NRC/Private Property sign, I was met at the gate – the sort of gate you expect to see at a public garden, not a barbed-wire, stay out of here gate – by two polite but firm gentlemen, armed with assault rifles and speaking by radio to the control center that had seen my truck over the surveillance cameras, make clear that I was not welcome beyond the parking lot.

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 1.47.02 PM

That said, I got within 300 meters of the casks. And, as you can see from the readings – the white and green circles on the map – I didn’t detect any radiation beyond what I’ve detected anywhere else in Massachusetts. That’s consistent with the official reports on Yankee Rowe – dozens of wells are monitored for possible groundwater contamination, and despite a recent scare about Cesium 137, there’s been no evidence of leakage from the casks.

It would have been a far more exciting visit had I somehow snuck past the armed guards and captured readings from the casks suggesting significant radiation emissions, I guess… though what it would demonstrate is that you probably shouldn’t sneak in and stand too close to those casks. Better might have been to use Safecast’s new hexacopter-mounted drone to fly a bGeigie over the casks, though I can only imagine what sort of response that might have prompted from the guards.

While I’m reassured that there’s no measurable elevated levels of radiation at Yankee Rowe, it still seems like a weird state of affairs that Yankee’s waste is going to remain on a hillside by a reservoir for the foreseeable future, protected by armed guards. (The real estate listings for property owned by Yankee Atomic Energy Corporation are pretty wonderful – “Special Considerations: An independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) associated with the previous operation of the Yankee Rowe Plant is located in the former plant area and remains under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Future ownership of the 300 meter buffer surrounding the ISFSI will be negotiated as part of the property disposition.”)

And there’s lots of sites like Yankee Rowe that already exist, and more on the way. The map above, from Jeff McMahon at Forbes, shows sites in the US where nuclear fuel is stored in pools or dry casks. And more plants are shutting down – Yankee Rowe’s sister plant, Vermont Yankee, announced closure this week to speculation that nuclear plants aren’t affordable given the low cost of natural gas. Of course, given the realization that cleaning up Yankee Rowe has cost 16 times what the plant to build and will continue until the waste is in a permanent repository might give natural gas advocates pause – will we have similar discussions of the problems of remediating fracking sites in a few years or a few decades?

Projects like Safecast – and the projects I’m exploring this coming year under the heading of citizen infrastructure monitoring – have a challenge. Most participants aren’t going to uncover Ed Snowden-calibre information by driving around with a geiger counter or mapping wells in their communities. Lots of data collected is going to reveal that governments and corporations are doing their jobs, as my data suggests. It’s easy to track a path between collecting groundbreaking data and getting involved with deeper civic and political issues – will collecting data that the local nuclear plant is apparently safe get me more involved with issues of nuclear waste disposal?

It just might. One of the great potentials of citizen science and citizen infrastructure monitoring is the possibility of reducing the exotic to the routine. I suspect my vague unease about the safety of nuclear waste on a hillside is similar to the distaste people feel for casks of spent fuel passing through their towns on the way to a storage site. I feel a lot more comfortable with Yankee Rowe having read up on the measures taken to encase the waste in casks, and with the ability to verify radiation levels near the site. (Actually, being confronted by heavily armed men also reassures me.) I’m more persuaded that regional storage facilities are a good idea than I was before my experiment and reading yesterday – my opinion previously would have been based more on a kneejerk fear of radioactivity than consideration of other options. (The compact argument: if we’ve got fuel in hundreds of sites around the US, each protected by surveillance cameras and security teams, it seems a lot more efficient to concentrate that problem into a small number of very-well secured sites.)

If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting. Monitoring a geiger counter that never jumps over 40 counts per minute isn’t the most exciting experiment you can conduct, but it might be one that turns a plan like Yucca Mountain into one we can discuss reasonably, not one that triggers an understandable, if unhelpful, emotional reaction of “not in my backyard.”


What comes after election monitoring? Citizen monitoring of infrastructure.

I spent last week in Senegal at a board meeting for Open Society Foundation, meeting organizations the foundation supports around the continent. Two projects in particular stuck in my mind. One is Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a Senegalese activist organization led by hiphop artists and journalists, who worked to register voters and oust long-time president Abdoulaye Wade. (I wrote about them last week here, and on Wikipedia.)


Documentary on OSIWA’s Situation Room project in Senegal, featuring Y’en a Marre

The other is a project run by Open Society Foundation West Africa – OSIWA – with support from partners in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and the UK. It’s an election “situation room”, a civil society election monitoring effort that focuses less on declaring elections “free and fair” than on reacting quickly to possible violence, mobilizing community leaders as peacemakers. OSIWA’s method has been used in Nigeria and Liberia, as well as in the Senegalese election where Y’en A Marre was such a powerful actor, as portrayed in the documentary above.

Elections are a moment where civil society often shines. Holding elections has become a major priority for governments, bilateral aid organizations and civil society organizations, and there’s been a good deal of creativity around monitoring elections using parallel vote tabulation and social media monitoring.

But elections don’t always equal development, or even a democratic process. Economist Paul Collier notes that elections in very poor nations often spark violence, and sees evidence that 41% of elections are marred by significant fraud. Elections work, Collier tells us, when governments are evaluated on their performance, not on their propensity for patronage. Citizens need to watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. (See MorsiMeter, developed to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency of Egypt.)
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