There’s no time for warnings. That was the opening statement of 2010 Festival Ars Electronica edition:Repair – ready to pull the lifeline, which has focused on advocating, as only way of conserving humanity and natural environment, direct action, as well as repairing and planning of achievable solutions, instead of merely analyzing problems we are well familiar with since decades.
More specifically, one amongst the projects displayed all around the labyrinthian corridors of Linz’s Tabak Fabrik fully embodied the concepts promoted in the festival: in.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea) by David Boardman and Paolo Gerbaudo. The work substantially consists in a journalistic survey, the results of which are published through an interactive platform mapping the eco-mafia crimes perpetrated in the Mediterranean Sea, namely illegally sunken ships loaded with toxic wastes.
The map allows to georeferentially visualize the “ships of poisons” and to access the detailed charts of those ships. Also, a timeline shows chronologically each sinkage, whilst the infographics give quantitated visualizations of informations like the type of ship and accident.
While traditional media make us aware of such problems as the death of printed newspapers, the influence social media have on our lives and the high rate of robberies in 2009, in.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea) tells us about invisible crimes and shows them in a most simple and straightforward way, combining data visualization with the accuracy of journalistic research.
A combination deriving from the different characters of the authors, cooperating on the base of a common interest: making use of the new technologies in order to communicate and inform on socially relevant events and matters and supporting the hysterical memory of those.
David Boardman is an Italian interaction designer who works on the functional and emotional impact new technologies have on our daily lives, focusing on the social dynamics triggered by the interaction between people and between people and public spaces, putting a special interest on social sustainability and methods of visualizing informations. He worked for MIT Design Laboratory and participated in several innovative research projects, which were presented worldwide at festivals and summits, forthbringing an approach to designing processes that combines media art and design, thus generating meaningful experiences concerning hysterical memory and furthermore, supporting social activism.
Paolo Gerbaudo is a London correspondent for “Il Manifesto” and a freelance journalist. He did a PhD at Goldsmith University in London, researching on those media artists and activists that have used original expedients to create geographic and cognitive maps that work as means of political expression.
David and Paolo’s collaboration is far from being recent. Their research on locative media, hypertextual literature, political and artistic installations began in 2004 with Netzfunk, an open network for politically active artists, whose works were then exhibited in a number of events as for instance the Torino and Santiago of Chile Biennales.
Serena Cangiano: Lets begin with an overlook of your project and its origins. I imagine that having been realized independently, the work originated from peculiar reasons and processes. How was Under.the.sea born?
Paolo Gerbaudo: In that period I was asked to help “Il manifesto”, with which I collaborate from London, in doing some research on the ships of poisons, checking Lloyd’s London archive, were all the reports of sunken ships are kept. Shortly I found myself overloaded with informations, hundreds of extremely detailed files. Those kind of informations of which I was only allowed to use some parts, that I subsequently employed to write several articles together with Andrea Palladino and Alessandra Fava. The articles were about those episodes of ships sinkage that weren’t of public knowledge yet. In short, my feeling was that having such an amount of data at disposal and being forbidden from doing anything with it was a real waste. So I got in contact with David who was working at the MIT at the time.
David Boardman: My collaboration with Paolo began with some media art projects, at the time of our university studies. During past November, while I was still in Boston busy with a work that was about to get started in Brasil, Paolo showed me the material he was working on, telling me of the accessibility of all that data. I immediately began thinking of the way to give another life to those informations; in fact, I was actually thinking that they would end up in a “Il Manifesto” article that would certainly attract people’s attention for no longer than the day it was published and only in a certain niche of readers.
After taking the decision to start the Under.the,sea project, it only toke us a couple of weeks to have it ready. Paolo worked on the data entry and data organization and I dealt with the layout and the interaction design aspects. It is a much easier work that one would imagine, thank to the amount of tools available on the web; we used, for instance, the timeline developed by the MIT department of Computer Science for the project SIMILE.
In the beginning, the interaction design aspects were more complex: we wanted to add and visualize a wider amount of data, as for instance the routes and the cargos’ proportions. Later we decided to focus more on the immediacy and simpleness of usage.
Serena Cangiano: Your project of media-activism aims to combine the strong impact of data visualization techniques with journalism. What led you to choose this approach?
Paolo Gerbaudo: In journalism, infographics are used to summarize certain kind of news since decades. However, in our case you don’t deal with simple infographics: the mapping process does not substitute the “story”, which is the ingredient of journalism; instead, it becomes a layout for the story and the stories. In fact, in.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea) offers multiple stories. Seventy-four ships, hence seventy-four stories. Each ship has its date of birth, death, its service history, and the report of its end.
David Boardman: Relating to what Paolo is saying, we can refer to Under.the.sea as to a project of data-driven journalism, in other words something that does substantially the same work Wikileaks and the “New York Times” data visualization department do. Choosing to employ information-visualization tools was choosing to realize a storytelling about the scandal of the ships of poisons; instead of creating the usual Legambiente dossier, with all the episodes listed one by one, we decided to realize an interactive system.
For this reason we preferred to show patterns of data, aggregating and placing them in a common context and underlining aspects that would not be perceivable in isolated episodes, as for instance routes, cargo typologies, locations of foundering, the chronology of the events and all this sort of thing. Once you have all the data displayed on a map it becomes evident where the sinking locations are and that they generally correspond to the areas where mafia is more influential, or where sea’s depths are higher or just on the limits of territorial waters (so where finding the sunken wastes would be more difficult).
Through the timeline, instead, other aspects arise: during some years the sinking activity was much more concentrated than in others. Such swings correspond with the issuing of laws about the environment or with more “permissive” governments or with the introduction of some treaties that made the activity of sinking toxic wastes illegal.
Serena Cangiano:The overlapping with other events is not visualized in the project. Are you planning to widen the platform, adding data that would introduce further levels of analysis and comparison and unveil “burning” coincidences? If that’s this case, how would you implement the new informations? Would that be through other data banks or thank to users’ participation?
David Boardman: For now, the coincidences between sinkings and other events has not been expressed explicitly. Concerning an underlaying strategy allowing further data implementation, we believe that publishing this work on the Internet, using a particular technology will allow visitors to get involved. We actually did so far gathered several crowdsourced informations, as for instance new sinking episodes, corrections on the coordinates of some incidents, further infos about the circumstances of some accidents, etc..
Through the ships’ IMO codes (International Maritime Organization, a sort of ID code similar to cars’ plates), we could find more data on the Internet and add it up to the Under.the.sea database. Also, through Shipspotting.com, we received many photographies from people having the hobby of taking pictures of ships. This way, we achieved to publish the images of ships before their sinking.
Publishing on internet aims to stimulate the initiative of further research, both in citizens and authorities. In fact, we actually noticed that some of our keener readers are from the NAS department of carabinieri (Antisophistications and Health Unit of the Arma dei Carabinieri); they visit Under.the.sea daily from all the different departments all around Italy, from North to South, and also from the Ministry of Defense and of Domestic Affairs. The data we publish are open-source releases, therefore anyone can draw from our database and create new projects or continue the investigation.
Paolo Gerbaudo: Along with the opportunity of collaborating with users, though, we also have the “dirty work” too, that being going to extract informations from actual archives and double-checking on the new ones. To create a project like this one on Internet, one can find groups of experts and people passionated to the subjects, who can represent a real push forward. However a filter, or quarantine, is necessary, since the web is also full of mythomaniacs and love theories about conspiracies, spotting ufo and radioactive loads everywhere.
The system we are working on is essentially based on reports that are then checked by a scientific committee. We believe it is necessary to discredit some of the myths about user-generated content. We’ve had mouthfuls of that and overvalued it as there were no more need for professionals to guarantee high standards of truthfulness for informations. Seen this, projects like ours are certainly the necessary fuel to keep the engine going, but there’s a definite division for what concerns roles and responsibilities.
Serena Cangiano: What do you believe is the most important benefit of projects that use new media activism and users collaboration?
Paolo Gerbaudo: The most relevant aspect is definitely the opportunity to create a shared memory about scandals like the ships of poisons one. TV news and reportages come and go. Media’s attention bursts for cases as the Cunski , which arose great attention this period last here. Everyone was talking about poison ships at the time. Now nobody seems to remember.
Projects like Under.the.sea have the advantage to last through time and be, say, permanent. They’re not on the news or in magazines. They remain accessible on a given web address and maintain a visibility that stands beyond the short-lasting media hype.
Serena Cangiano: Considering the relevance of users’ contributions, but also the “burning” nature of the contents, I was wondering whether you have considered to implement systems that guarantee for sources to remain anonymous (see Wikileaks). And on the top of that, I’d like to understand if this system could be extended to other types of investigations.
David Boardman: At the moment there aren’t any methods guaranteeing anonymity. For what concerns other kinds of application, the system on which in.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea) is based could easily be applied to other kinds of research. For instance, we thought about realizing different types of in.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea), for different cases of illegal sinkings: for instance those linked to international cooperation between western nations and African countries, namely those “humanitarian missions” growing on weapons treads between local tribes/guerrilla groups in exchange with toxic wastes (see the Ilaria Alpi e Miran Hrovatin case in Somalia). There are many cases like that in Lebanon, Nigeria, Mozambico, etc. There also is something similar in Port Alang in India, one of the chief ships demolition harbors that has now become a toxic wastes dump. Let’s say that from a technical point of view, the platform could easily be adapted for these purposes without needing big changes, or also be applied on other themes, especially the ones concerning eco-mafia.
Paolo Gerbaudo: I’d like to add that Under.the.sea could be included among those instruments used as monitoring systems “from below” of environmental crimes, a system called Citizen Environment Watch. This is our ideal ground, and on this level the platform developed for In.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea) can be used to surveil a series of environmental crimes, unauthorized building, unauthorized dumps, illegal pits. The concept we stick to is “undersurveillance”.
Serena Cangiano: Was the application of agumented reality in In.fondo.al.mar (under.the.sea) for mobile devices conceived in order to support this “undersurveillance” regarding crimes committed by common people?
David Boardman: After the article on “Wired.it” we received an e-mail from a guy from Milan, Mauro Rubin, CEO at the Join Pad, who told us: “I love the project, I will deliver a mobile version of augmented reality”. With this independent contribute we were able to open the project towards a very interesting area which we originally did not have time to develop. The mobile application it’s only some sort of prototype, it’s the first step towards what we will try to explore in the next projects about the “eco-mafia”, which means moving from the web and being separated from the territory towards a browsing & reading the territory system.
The Browsing & Reading should eventually lead to Reporting, which means pushing people to directly report facts and circumstances on the territory and from there putting some pressure on institutions responsible of the control over territory. Citizen could, for instance, detect environmental data, take pictures and directly file reports. New projects can also be realized as games following the patterns of alternate reality games: we were working at the concept of a project which takes its cue from the Sin City’s metaphore in order to realize a system which monitors building abuses and architectural horrors in Italy. Displaying the data is interesting, but if we do not close the circle, it is an end in itself.