Gary Stock: UnBlinking

Getting Drilled in a Pristine Area, Part Two
Part One of Getting Drilled described Ian Thomas' firing by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), for publishing a map of sensitive habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The Lay of the Land -- events that led to ANWR becoming a battleground.

An Easy-to-Read Legend -- Thomas' public belief that public data must be... public.

One Click Too Far -- his well respected skills proved ideal for mapping wildlife data, but...

...nonetheless, Thomas was canned -- since the data might displease commercial and political powers. However, those powers failed to comprehend the enormous speed and bandwidth of one hidden network: data freedom fighters.

Please use QuickTopic to share your comments. [Usability note: All links here open into the same target window.]

Thu 2001-03-29

Let's revisit briefly the LA Times article by Lisa Getter, Federal Worker Is Fired in Wildlife Refuge Map Flap:

Last week, Ian Thomas posted a map on a U.S. government Web site of the caribou calving areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the Bush administration wants to open up for oil exploration.

This week, Thomas is looking for a new job.

"I'm really flabbergasted," Thomas said Wednesday. "After putting out 20,000 maps with no problem and then putting out one where baby caribou like to hang out, I got fired..."

Ian Thomas had lost his footing temporarily, but he was both skilled and lucky in righting himself. His story went from being a personal burden to being a focus of outrage on half the desktops in the world. It began, as all journeys do, with a single step.  

Following an Unblazed Trail

Point A: Michael Meuser

Ian Thomas, convicted summarily of DUI (Digitizing Unto the Internet), took one small step for mankind by e-mailing his story to Michael R. Meuser, an Environmental Sociologist at MapCruzin. Their e-mail identities suggest Thomas and Meuser are kindred spirits, sharing a philosophy of geospatial data integrity: Ian Thomas' e-mail address begins "free_world_maps@..." while Mike Meuser signs:

Community-Based Research, GIS, WebMaps,
Environmental Justice, Right-to-Know Advocacy

Meuser monitors news related to his Ph.D. dissertation, "Right-To-Know or Left-To-Wonder? Public Disclosure of Environmental Information in the Information Age." Among other services, MapCruzin offers website archiving. When Meuser passed along the story, he noted that the USGS fiasco exemplified "A good reason to archive websites!"

Point B: pol-sci-tech

Adding the title "web censorship," Meuser forwarded Thomas' message to pol-sci-tech, a discussion list on the "democratic politics of science and technology anywhere in the world." With only 25 posts in over six months, it's no hotbed of activism.

Point C: Paul Bissex

Pol-sci-tech looked like a dead end. However, it did light one fuse in the form of Paul Bissex, a technology writer whose e-scribe media site is nearly wordless. (Although it does ask and answer in hidden HTML, "What's going on? Reinvention.")

At this juncture, UnBlinking Blinked -- deciding not to follow every promising path. Articles Bissex wrote are available on many sites, from AlterNet to WebReview magazine.

In an online Manifesto, Bissex reveals interests in "...alternative energy, and scam artists." (Perhaps ironic; scam artists in D.C. are ignoring alternative energy, so Bissex seems an ideal conduit :-) But he brings more to this equation: he groks the web, and its potential to influence society.

Several pages by Bissex have gone unchanged for more than five years (which, dear reader, is a very long time on the web!), but have aged remarkably well. He was sufficently tech-hip that his 1996 comments remain as relevant as anything being published today:

...Internal campaigns against censorship, gross commercialism, and bad information have been quite successful, but the Net has yet to come into its own as a medium for pulling people together on other causes. Now go out there and prove me wrong!" (More irony here, since those who would censor ANWR data hope that bad information will lead to commercial gain... plenty to rally around.)
Point D: Declan McCullaugh

Taking his own exhortations to heart, Bissex passed custody to one Declan McCullagh, adding:

A reasonable interpretation of these events, differing of course from the official explanation, would be that this guy was fired because he was making it more difficult for Bush to sell the idea of drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.
Now, writing to Declan McCullaugh (whose resume begins, blithely, "Washington bureau chief for Wired News..." and goes on to name a dozen more venues) is something akin to announcing 'Free Beer!' in Boston. You do so only if you're ready for traffic. (In fact, while writing this page, Declan popped up just across the room from me -- in an NPR interview :-) His politechbot provided coverage midday on March 19, 2001. Perhaps coincidental, but Wired's Jeffrey Benner subsequently wrote that Oil and Websites Don't Mix:
Faced with vague instructions to purge the website of anything Clinton, a duty to protect Alaska's wildlife, and a new boss rumored to be hell bent on oil, USFWS Alaska public affairs representatives Karen Boylan and Bruce Woods felt they were walking a fine line without a map.
Benner added UnBlinking style, in the form of excerpts from the infamous website that cost Ian Thomas his job.

In review, Ian Thomas, a beleaguered USGS mapmaker in Laurel, Maryland mailed an Environmental Sociologist in Santa Cruz, who posted to a nearly static listserv. However, that post interested a Technology Writer in Northampton, Massachusetts, who passed it to a Washington bureau chief for Wired, among the most influential online publications. Ain't the web wonderful!

(Let's file just one tidbit. With e-mail identities as simple as "pb" and "declan," Paul Bissex and Declan McCullaugh likely were early members of The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. The WELL, at age fifteen, is an ancient pillar of web community building. The founders of The WELL, among other good works, "have founded advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation." The EFF sets a standard to "Uphold rights to digital free expression from political, legal and technical threats." Ah! So profoundly relevant for next month's final leg of our journey ;-)

Two Roads Diverged

In retrospect, fire already was spreading down many paths. Before Wired published the story, UnBlinking had received two copies of Ian Thomas' letter in unrelated (private) newsgroups. Public groups also found out early, and added scathing commentary. In misc.activism.progressive ("Looks to me like the Bush Regime is really gunning for the Alaska Natl Wildlife Refuge. Guess they'll stoop to anything"). At alt.culture.alaska ("The Greedy Ole Party has began forcing opposition to kill the truth so they can have an open conduit to feeding the public lies").

The story had a more moderate debut at kuro5hin.org Freedom & Politics -- but moderation didn't last. One particularly UnBlinking reader (having searched up postings by Thomas) came to a wry conclusion:

Ian Thomas was quite the rabble-rouser... The guy was a dangerous humanitarian, interested in preserving and disseminating information about the world we live in... an environmentalist, humanitarian, and information-freedom fighter, all anathema to big business and the current administration. No wonder he was dropped.
Another K5 regular was kind enough to capture the message posted by Dr. Jay B. Hestbeck (Chief of Research at Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, where Ian Thomas worked) in place of the censored maps:
The contents of this website are undergoing review and will be reposted once their scientific credibility has been ensured. Thank you for your patience.
Hestbeck's first draft now has evolved greater political cover, assuring us it's really all about science:
Contents of this website are undergoing review. Datasets that have completed peer review and received Research Program approval have been reposted. Other datasets are still undergoing review and will be reposted as soon as Patuxent can ensure their scientific credibility. Thank you for your patience with our review process.
One extremely UnBlinking K5 fellow, Chris Cappuccio, did the obvious, and mirrored the offending maps -- the very maps USGS had sought to repress -- with a mock warning Don't Publish Maps Of The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge!

Elsewhere, Newsday's Paul Vitello covered A Mapmaker, Caribou and Oil, [original MIA], citing another media mainstay's view of ANWR:

Lesley Stahl, who went there for "60 Minutes," for instance, told us it is a haunting, teeming and "spiritually beautiful" place.
Environmental organizations gained momentum -- and added more of their own. Defenders of Wildlife published the activist alert "BIG BROTHER: Feds fire worker over 'baby caribou' map." The publicity windfall fit well with DefWild's official request for "permanent protection of the coastal plain's significant wildlife and wilderness values," in a letter signed by 500 scientists, [original PDF], including George Schaller, Edward O. Wilson and other esteemed ecological experts.

National Public Radio also contributed its share. A one-hour NPR Talk of the Nation (14:00 EST 19 Mar 2001) addressed "President Bush's Environmental Policy Reversal." Over 30 hours later, with the show's chat room still active (you'll need a free NPR login), Edna commented on USSR vs. USA:

"Revolution, when it stops being a lofty ideal and becomes the reigning power, rids itself of the idealists first." -Yevgeny Yevtushenko

We know that Bush and his Enron cabinet promote the oil industry, but when they censor public information that runs counter to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, public outrage must follow or freedom of speech is lost. The following letter was forwarded to me from MIT:
...and she proceeded to echo the Ballad of Ian Thomas. The exchanges continued with growing irritation:
P: Perhaps the specific maps he is referring to were removed but the site itself still does exist.

O: I could get to the site but the "Global Environmental Atlas" came up FORBIDDEN.

S: I also tried to access the site. It would be interesting to learn why it is "Forbidden." The other sites aren't. Big Brother is watching?

D: Das ist verboten.
   Ihr Führer,
   W. Busch
   Faschistisches Politisches Beteiligtes
Perhaps not the perception USGS had wished. Twenty four hours later, a spiritual aspect cropped up at NPR's Your Turn:
Back to the cool topic about W firing a scientist, here is a relevant link:

World out of Balance: In a Prescient Time Native Prophecy Meets Scientific Prediction
...The spectre of profound climate change - outside the usual seasonal and annual fluctuations attributed to weather's variability and beyond expectation of Native elders, based on their observational knowledge and distant memory - poses an enormous dilemma replete with local and global implications and complexities...
To fire a naturalist who is studying scientifically the movement of Caribou on public land is about as fascist as it gets...
This contributor closes with the audio capture of a 15 Mar 2001 NPR feature: Environmentalists Blast Bush for Carbon Dioxide Backtrack. Again, probably not a tone the powers-that-be intended to invoke.

Please be clear: Juan Williams of NPR's Talk of the Nation addressed the topic for one hour on 19 Mar 2001. The Your Turn web page for that single hour is adding new postings as of this writing (28 Mar 2001). And USGS can't stop it.

The Detour Continues

The USGS censorship effort continues to draw new fire up until this writing. Knowing an atrocity when they see one, today's Democracy NOW! from Pacifica radio granted Ian Thomas a public forum. Joining him was Eric Wingeter, Field Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In its watchdog way, PEER has called to task both USGS and the US Department of Interior, reprimanding them thus:

Whether or not the termination was as overtly politically motivated as it appears on its face, it undoubtedly creates a chilling effect on scientists throughout the federal government. Scientists within your agency who have contacted PEER express reluctance to post research findings that may run counter to the policy positions of Interior Secretary Norton.

Also today, Environmental News Service reports:

A book of comments opposing Arctic refuge drilling will be presented to Congress at a press conference on Wednesday. The book, "Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony," includes testimonies from such respected thinkers as former President Jimmy Carter, and writers Wendell Berry, Rick Bass, Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben and Barry Lopez, as well as members of the Gwich'in Nation.
How will one book make a difference? Here's a kicker USGS just never saw coming:
The book, a paperback produced using "print-on-demand" technology, moved from concept to completion in two short months. The normal time for book production is one to two years. The book also will be posted for download on Milkweed's website dedicated to literature and activism http://www.worldashome.org/.
By the way, all proceeds go to further advocacy on behalf of the Arctic Refuge. Chris Waddington of The Minneapolis Star Tribune explains how publisher Milkweed Editions has jumped into the drilling debate by creating this new e-book:
...a publication, released today... uses the Internet to bring some of the United States' best writers into the legislative debate.

Milkweed's venture into political action -- and electronic distribution -- is unprecedented, said Jim Milliot, the business and news editor at Publisher's Weekly, a New York trade publication. "I haven't heard about any publishers doing this kind of timely political advocacy with e-books."
Perhaps Ian is feeling better already.

Most fitting is the latest work by Ian Thomas, a Landsat & Vegetation Composite Map of ANWR (Area 1002). In an inspired moment, he has entitled it, "The Beginning of the Cartographer's Revenge! The First of Many!" Now we are able to click and zoom in on specific lands slated for exploration -- using maps Ian produced in his newfound free time (brought to you by the legendary shortsightedness of the current Administration in Washington).

So far, here are the practical results of the USGS move to censor the ANWR data:

· enhance the level of mapping detail available to the general public;
· assure permanent availability of ANWR caribou maps across the entire web;
· call attention to the oil industry's undue influence on resource and social policy;
· tarnish severely the reputation of USGS as an independent scientific body;
· rally opposition to drilling among an otherwise indifferent or silent audience;
· provide both the fuel and the spark to ignite a forum far beyond their control.
That's a lot to accomplish just by snuffing out one web page.

This edition had been planned as the last in a series of two. However, Washington continues to exacerbate energy-related conflicts through various policy initiatives. For example, we now have An Arctic Fox in Charge of the Henhouse.



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