Interacting in the Commons

“Information visualization aims at visually translating large volumes of data into digestible insights, creating an explicit bridge between data and knowledge.  Due to its intrinsic aspirations for sense-making, information visualization is an obvious tool for network science, able to disentangle a range of complex systems and make them more comprehensible.  Not only do both disciplines share a yearning for understanding, but they have also experienced a meteoric rise in the last decade, bringing together people from various fields and capturing the interest of individuals across the globe” (Lima, Manuel. Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, pg. 18). 

Despite massive innovations over the past 40 years in geoinformatics, there are still some unmapped cracks in the sidewalk for further research.  This research seeks to explore to what extent information technology, such as mapping, has empowered citizens to take part in more participatory action, cutting across their own networks (will refer to work done on participatory GIS and public participation GIS).  This thesis is underpinned by the view that individuals are not isolated beings, but rather, are embedded in a dense social network, one that is laden with discordant values and customs.

Theories of collective action and public goods theory (Samuelson, Hardin, Olson, Ostrom) display the need for coordination among a myriad of interests.   My research will rely on these theories to provide a framework for thinking about how individuals within groups make decisions.  Despite literature which tells us that individuals will cooperate better within small groups because they will share like interests (Krackhardt, Passy, Burt); it has become increasingly clear that even individuals within same groups hold a myriad of conflicting values.  This makes collective decision-making incredibly complex.

Given this complexity, how do people use technology such as geographic information systems to make decisions with regard to the environment, a commonly held resource, when presented with such varying value structures?  If we cannot assume that all individuals are acting in a standardized rational way, how do we calibrate for a varying scale of individual values?  One commonly cited problem is that of concentrated private costs versus diffuse public benefits.  I hypothesize that mapping public benefits to geographic space will incentivize participatory action on behalf of the citizen; in part, because it provides a mental map to the citizen.

The research will use both quantitative and qualitative methods.  A current area of contention is over the use of land with regard to natural gas extraction.  Friction exists over the method of extraction, hydraulic fracturing, and its potential negative effects on the health of the community, both physically, aesthetically, and spiritually.  On the converse, some community members argue that the industry will bring on an influx of revenue to the community; there is also an appeal to some environmentalists based on the notion that natural gas is cleaner than coal.  I will look at three communities currently battling these issues, and explore how the visualization of values — one’s own in relation to others’ — might mitigate dissidence.

A deeper question that this research poses is does a sense of wonder inspire more civically minded citizens?

Burt, R. (2005). Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elwood, Sarah. (2006). Beyond cooptation or resistance: Urban spatial politics, community organizations, and GIS-based spatial narratives. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 96(2): 323-341.

Goodchild, M.F. (2007). Citizens as sensors: The world of volunteered geographic information. GeoJournal, 69(4).

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859): 1243-1248.

Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., and Austin, M. E. (2008). Factors shaping local land use decisions: Citizen planners’ perceptions and challenges.  Environment and Behavior, 40(1): 46-71.

Krackhardt, D. (1972). The strength of strong ties: The importance of Philos in organizations. Networks and Organizations: Structure Form and Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Koontz, T. M. (2001). Money talks–But to whom? Financial vs. non-monetary motivations in land use decisions.  Society and Natural Resources, 14: 51-65.

Lessig, L. (2001). The future of ideas: The fate of the commons in a connected world. New York: Random House.

Moran, E. F., & Ostrom, E. (2005). Seeing the Forest and the Trees : Human-environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems. Mit Press.

Neuliep, J. W. (2011). Intercultural Communication, 5: 45-167

Olson, M. (1971). The logic of collective action: Public goods and the theory of groups. Harvard University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.

Passy, F. (2003). Social networks matter but how? Social Movement and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vandello, J. A., and Cohen, D. (1999). Patterns of individualism and collectivism across the United States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(2): 279-292.

Walsh, S.J., and K.A. Crews-Meyer, eds. (2002). Linking people, place, and policy: A GIS-cience approach. Boston: Kluwer.


Despite literature on rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, it has become increasingly clear that even individuals within the same groups hold a myriad of conflicting values.  This makes collective decision-making incredibly complex.  How do people make decisions with regard to the environment, a commonly held resource, when presented with such varying value structures?  If we cannot assume that all individuals are acting in a standardized rational way, how do we calibrate for a varying scale of individual values?  One commonly cited problem is that of concentrated private costs versus diffuse public benefits.

To investigate ways of resolving tensions, first we need to understand how decisions are made and implemented.  Decision-making is an interaction between federal, state and local governments, industry, citizen groups, and individuals; thus, it is important to look at the ways that external forces such as institutions and government play a role with respect to individual behavior.  In his book, Institutions, Institutional Chance and Economic Performance, Douglass North tells that institutions matter because they are a way for reducing uncertainty.  In an era of a ‘we vs. they’ worldview, in which the individual was viewed as isolated from any social context, things were simple, straightforward, certain—we made predictions based on ideological bents.  However, we have seen that the neoclassical paradigm was a huge misfit for other countries as it assumed zero transaction costs and rational behavior of individuals; it assumed that humanity was predictable using the self-interested individual as the unit of analysis.

Illuminating the crucial differences within groups, North emphasizes that a common set of rules will function differently in different societies given their specific histories and institutional framework. In personal exchanges, because the salience of informal rules, community, and cooperation is high, situations for risk and uncertainty are low.  In tribal exchange, “the absence of a state supported by formal written rules is made up for by a dense social network” (North, 123).  Because of this, there is little need for costly, often inefficient, formal institutions such as regulatory agencies or government institutions to step in.  People are willing to take risks on behalf of their community.  However, as society grows and we become more and more globalized, it is not that informal rules lose their meaning, but the opportunities of defection are greater.  It is here that society may benefit in having weak ties with rooted cosmopolitans (Granovetter, Tarrow, and Tilly).

However, if values are not written into the individual stemming from inner personal motivations but are embedded in a society, how do we account for varying values within a colony? Coming from a socio-cultural and systemic thinking perspective, I ask how people today make decisions on how to use publicly shared resources.  As this is an age-old problem, dating back to antiquity, how might individuals resolve tensions with new information communication technologies?

In particular, I am curious about how useful, if employed at all, are information technologies in the context of contention over issues of land use.  Is there a way for preserving individual values while responding to the wants and needs of each person?  There is a paradox in the attempt to be sensitive to a diversity of individual values while also preserving the land.

One example of where we see this tension is in conflict between the tribe members of Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northern Montana who are currently arguing over whether or not to lease their land for hydraulic fracturing.  In some literature such as Richard Pascale’s The Power of Positive Deviance, we see that the solution to many problems can come from within communities.  It comes from an observation of local identity and an understanding for how society works together.


North, Douglass. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance: Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions. Cambridge University Press. Print.

Expanding and Contracting

I have begun to hone in on more specific areas of the complexity of understanding global environmental problems while simultaneously maintaining a broad perspective to take in different disciplines.  I still propose that environmental problems are related to STEM in that they are ill-structured and ambiguous; they include a multitude of variables, thus, there is a need for better methods of engaging society on these complex issues.  But upon deeper reflection, this interest does not extend from the perspective of an advocate of change or a particularly pro-conservationist mindset.  Rather, it is inspired by an interest in how individuals interact with one another to make sense of an uncertain world.

Social psychology has shown that behavioral modifications are effective in changing individual behaviors specifically through feedback mechanisms (Goetz, Thomas).  And by changing individual behaviors, one can presumably mitigate the cumulative effects of individual choices.  By and large, the latest literature shows that science communication has been ineffective in educating the public and in fact, it has largely increased public polarization around contentious issues (Hart & Nisbet, 2011).  So here we witness a scenario in which individuals do not respond well to scientific information; however, are moved to action by nudges (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge).

Some of the more specific questions that have come to mind are:

How can new technologies be designed and deployed to localize and individualize global problems such as climate change?  Have tools such as mapping and spatial analysis given rise to more participatory action by providing a place to self-report?  Given that individuals tend to align with an ideology to ward off uncertainty (Jost et al.), how could these tools possibly mitigate the chances of individuals adopting ideologies that may be inconsistent with reality?

More specifically, what are tribal communities in the Arctic and Pacific Northwest doing to have their local problems voiced in the context of global climate change?  How do these local communities transmit knowledge both within their network and to those outside of their network? For instance, the Local Environmental Observers (LEO) provide Alaskan communities with tools for mapping and monitoring climate change.  In these tribal communities, the residents rely on their own observations and communication with one another.  However, it is critical to have a liaison between local residents and state and federal governments.  The chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Billy Frank Jr., speaks about the importance of linking a direct observation of the natural world with scientific research. “Traditional knowledge is on the ground stuff; it’s not a theory,” says Ray Harris, a fisherman in Chemainus First Nation.  I might also look at how local fishing communities in South Louisiana responded to their plight post-Hurricane Katrina (and the BP Oil Spill)?



I hypothesize that the problem of denial or lack of concern for global problems is not a problem of individual morality for all men desire to be virtuous (Aristotle) but of the social context in which one is embedded.  Furthermore, though the political regime as well as institutions and organizations may shape the incentives for sustainable innovations (North, 1990), “expert-driven, centralized and top-down approaches to problem solving are not nimble enough to effectively address global challenges characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty” (Westley et al., 776). When designing processes for citizen engagement, new technologies must diverge from the centralized, top-down approaches to problem-solving and take on a much more distributed and decentralized nature. But it is critical that we not be too quick to extol the Internet and its subsystem, the World Wide Web as the beacon of democratic technology.  There are many components that comprise these systems, some that may or may not be entirely conducive to democratic decision-making.

Self-regulation and reflection (Anderson et al) often referred to as metacognition (Flavell) will help inform the questions asked in my survey of individuals’ perception of their views in relation to others.  Additionally the social cognitive theory presented by Albert Bandura helps in understanding why people may not respond immediately to dire environmental issues.  Here it will be worthwhile to look at what scholars have said about perception (Eagleman).

Time and time again we see that change is happening most at the fringes. This research will explore what new information communication technologies can be employed to engage the social cognitive function of individuals, particularly in places marked by disaster and uncertainty.

All who are able, may gain virtue by study and care, for it is better to be happy by the action of nature than by chance. To entrust to chance what is most important would be defective reasoning.

Scientific Uncertainty and Decision-Making

Does scientific uncertainty impede pro-environmental decision-making in the public as well as in policy-making?

Does scientific uncertainty lead to environmental skepticism?

Do interactive designs communicate environmental challenges more clearly than mainstream news media and science journals?

Has the reliance on scientific “proof” to justify injury diminished the trust in science?

How closely correlated is environmental protection and economic growth?

What branch of the U.S. government has the greatest effect on environmental policy?

Night sweats. Fever. Swollen lymph nodes. Nausea. Rising sea levels. Depletion of wetlands. Droughts. The list goes on and on—a mélange of toxins culminating in localized problems. Air pollutants often go unseen until they make themselves known through the human body. Strides to connect the uncertainty of disease and natural disasters to human action and air pollutants have relied heavily on scientific research.  But how has the quantification of scientific certainty and economic valuation around environmental problems had negative effects on the regulation of potentially harmful substances?  As noted by Norman Vig and Michael Kraft, the late 60s to early 70s marked a time of widespread, bipartisan pro-environmental movements mostly due to sensationalist images and events capturing the risk of environmental problems as well as a plethora of scientific findings linking air and water pollutants to human illness.  This was a time in which the focus became much more legal and scientific than in the past.

The Clean Air Act was backed by Congress during this time period, the same year that the EPA was created and was given the primary role in carrying out the law (plain English guide to the CAA, 2).  To give the EPA even more authority in holding companies accountable for pollutant emissions, Congress amended the act in 1990 to include a requirement under section 812 that EPA “conduct periodic, scientifically reviewed studies to assess the benefits and the costs of the Clean Air Act” (ES-1).  Additionally, the Act majorly relied on cost-benefit analysis for justifying environmental programs.  This has proved to be an incredibly difficult way to assess the benefits of the act because it requires monetizing human suffering and loss. Another problem with this kind of assessment is that there are real, visible, upfront costs of implementing regulations while the benefits go unseen but are potentially far greater than the immediate costs.  As seen in the Supreme Court case between the state of Massachusetts and the EPA, under the modern framework, petitioners bear the burden of proof to show that an injury is “traceable to the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to promulgate new motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards, and that is likely to be redressed by the prospective issuance of such standards” (Mass v. EPA, Roberts, C. J., dissenting, 2).  The problem is that it is almost impossible to trace alleged injuries “back through this complex web to the fractional amount of global emissions that might have been limited with EPA standards” (Roberts, C. J., dissenting, 11).

Though the rise in global temperatures and its linkage with greenhouse gases was based on scientific opinion, the EPA petitioned to not regulate ‘greenhouse gases’ due to conflict over what is under the EPA’s jurisdiction[1].  Additionally, the EPA capitalized on the ambiguity of the word ‘judgment’ to say that there are other areas of the government who can regulate; however, the term was meant that the EPA can only avoid regulations “if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do” (5).  In other words, the EPA must give a reason for why it chooses to act or not act.  The Supreme Court’s opinion was that the use “of the word ‘judgment’ is not a roving license to ignore the statutory text.  It is but a direction to exercise discretion within defined statutory limits” (30).  It is of particular interest not only how scientific uncertainty led to snags in the regulatory process, but also, how the text itself became a science.  As noted in the Supreme Court case “textual ambiguity” of the definition of air pollutant and the lack of a definition for air pollution provided room for uncertainty, misunderstanding, and manipulation of the text.

[1] The EPA argued that the regulation of motor-vehicle carbon dioxide emissions would fall under the role of the Department of Transportation.