The threat that climate change poses to coastal cities is an enormous problem that can be difficult to depict, whether that’s through a text or visual lens. To tackle that challenge, Northeastern Professor Alessandra Renzi is using a combination of storytelling tools to explain the impact of sea level rise in a way that reaches multiple audiences, including policymakers and residents of impoverished urban areas.
As a professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University, Renzi teaches interdisciplinary seminars, develops interactive video projects, and investigates data visualization as a tool for understanding climate change. She’s committed to using critical scholarship, activism, and multimedia tools to communicate the risks of climate change and to draw attention to the economic drivers of the problem.
“We are at a very interesting moment in time where it has become very hard to trust the news,” Renzi said. “We need to spend time studying and thinking about news interaction to figure out what kinds of spaces we have to create now.”
Most recently, her work has focused on Jakarta, Indonesia, where she spent the last two summers and will return in 2017 to explore the impact of communication tools in the face of floods that are beginning to overwhelm the city’s coasts. So far, she has directed a short documentary for The Shore Line, an interactive documentary project whose goal is to “promote dialogue and inspire new approaches to coastal protection,” according to the website. She is also developing teaching modules that explain through data visualization why Jakarta floods.
“The goal is to explain [flooding] and circulate information in the media about what the government is doing to mitigate flooding and what the solutions will be,” Renzi says of the data visualization project, which was completed in October. She worked with designer Skye Moret, who recently received her MFA in Information Design and Data Visualization from Northeastern.
Renzi also collaborated with the Urban Poor Consortium (UPC), an Indonesia-based nonprofit working to restore sustainable housing throughout the country, to understand how environmental groups were using data, and how that data could be further used to engage members of the urban poor community.
“[UPC] wanted something they could use to foster conversation,” she said. “They told me they wanted the visualization and we developed it together.”
Visualizing the problem
In a rapidly changing world, Renzi says visualizations are an important way to empower the public to participate in climate change and social justice initiatives.
“Visualizations constantly engage people by creating this feeling of being involved,” said Renzi, who has previously worked mainly in video and sound. She hopes the visualizations she has created on Jakarta’s floods can be used as teaching modules to “give people the feeling that they are participating.”
Her interactive documentary for The Shore Line project features the Ciliwung River – one of the most polluted in the world – and how community networks like the Ciliwung Institute are helping to preserve the river’s ecosystem, despite flooding and pollution.
“The role of the Ciliwung Institute is to help the government and environmentalists by educating people about the river, and the river’s connection to the ecosystem because everything is interconnected,” said Bang Kodir, Ciliwung Institute Director, in the four-minute film directed by Renzi. “We want to increase public participation and help spread knowledge.”
Renzi hopes to help move that mission forward through her work.
“Media is going to be effective as long as the media relays and strengthens what is happening on the ground,” she said.
The changing media landscape
Jakarta residents are not strangers to this type of multimedia approach to social justice – they are already using Twitter to map flooded areas and inspire solidarity movements.
With 80 million social media users, Jakarta has become the Twitter capital of the world. According to one article from The Guardian, Jakarta residents use social media to see the “silver lining” in a country prone to “natural and manmade disasters alike.”
“Indonesians in general, and Jakartans in particular, liked to socialize, even before the era of social media,” said Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar in the Guardian article. “We like to talk to strangers, talk to each other about everything.”
As citizen journalism continues to grow in Jakarta, Renzi is spending time thinking about how the news media fits into the changing landscape – both digitally and physically as floods continue to erode the country.
She is planning to return to Jakarta in May to run a workshop with planners and policymakers to discuss solutions to flooding, and is hoping to apply for another grant to continue to “combine scientific approaches with social justice approaches” when it comes to climate change issues.
“We need the right lenses and tools to understand the world before we can act in it,” Renzi said. “Climate change is a great area to experiment and put this kind of work into practice.”’