Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)



Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?

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In November, I withdrew into the snowy environment of northern Massachusetts to reflect on my goals for the coming year. I live next to a park belonging to the Trustees of Reservations, so bluejays and nuthatches kept me company while I wrote. Before and after work, I spent hours sifting through my ideas about what to cultivate – and what to prune back – during the coming year.

A nuthatch (Source: Terry Sohl)

I took a three-week vacation from Twitter to reduce the “noise” in my environment. Surrounded by the peace and quiet of the wildlife refuge, I made some difficult decisions about my priorities and commitments for the coming year.

  • I chose to offer the services that match my personality, background and interests. So I rewrote the skills, experience and bio pages of this website – as well as my LinkedIn profile. These pages now show my commitment to working on writing and technology projects that have social benefits. They also emphasize my experience in engineering and fascination with the way things work.
  • I made the difficult decision to close out my media relations contract and focus on content production – writing, website editing, and social media outreach. I gave notice to my client on January 2nd and am currently seeking a new project to replace that contract.
  • Translating science content is very satisfying for me. The more technical it is, the better. Working with an MIT professor on a physics book earlier this year showed me that not only do I have the “chops” for hard science, I relish covering it. I feel confident promoting my services to academics and technology professionals. I plan to seek out more science-intensive projects during the coming year. I am comfortable working with clients anywhere in the United States.
  • Although I want to keep at least one nonprofit project on my calendar at any time, I don’t plan to specialize in working for nonprofits. I am very interested in partnering with green businesses and universities and combining projects from different sectors. I recently signed up to do a long-term blogging project for a brownfield remediation business and plan to take on other similar projects.
  • I’m in the process of retooling NetSquared Boston, the meetup I co-organize, to make sure that it addresses unmet needs within the nonprofit tech community. My leadership role in NetSquared Boston gives me many professional opportunities, including networking and low-cost computer training. I plan to refresh some of my web development and software skills soon to stay current with the state-of-the-art technology that is coming out each year.
  • Although I was considering moving to Denver or Chicago earlier, I now plan to stay in Massachusetts for the next few years. I visited family in Chicago in early January and made the decision while I was there. Although I miss Chicago, there are many reasons for me to stay in Massachusetts.
  • Finally, I have a resolution to take more risks with writing and journalism this coming year. I want to go to events like the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, take the leap toward doing projects that are outside my comfort zone, and continue to experiment stylistically as a writer.

I’ve pruned back my commitments from 2012 now so that new ideas can flourish. If the flower that I am attempting to cultivate has a name, it’s a “science and technology writing flower.” It probably looks like this image:

Fractal flower
Fractal flower (Source: 123RF)

Identifying and following my dreams was what led to my success in graduate school. After a year of freelance work, stopping to take time to smell the roses and retool my approach to my career goals was exactly what I needed this winter.

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The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit oicweave.org.

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.

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It takes an artistic eye to look at an ordinary wall and see potential spaces for art in the fissures between the bricks. Some artists see the blank spaces between objects as zones where new ideas can emerge. M.C. Escher used white space as a central part of his artwork.

Now, in cities around the world, artists are using plastic bricks to fill in empty spaces and “patch” broken walls and monuments. These “dispatchers” have collected their handiwork on a website which includes their manifesto:

I don’t enjoy living in dull and grey cities. Do you? Have you noticed that toys for kids are generally very shiny and colorful? I wonder why that is, given that they are to be brought up to live in mostly dull and gray cities as adults. Since I lived in many of such cities, I am seeking to improve the appearance of public spaces in different ways, in terms of what I consider improvement. Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales.

Like Buddhist sand mandalas, the repairs are intended to be temporary. Because the plastic will end up in our water systems eventually, I’d like to see this group experiment with biodegradable LEGOs. Unfortunately, the only biodegradable LEGO-style bricks that exist are a dull shade of brown. Only their scent is attractive; apparently, they smell like green tea.

Since living in Chicago, I have been interested in art projects that reclaim damaged parts of city landscapes. There are many ways to introduce art into cities, including turning vacant lots into parks and yarn bombing.

I participated in a Dispatchers project in Beverly, Massachusetts this weekend. We decorated the entrance of a graffiti-covered building with LEGO-shaped stickers.

A Dispatchers event in Beverly, MA.
Dispatchers standing next to an entrance covered with LEGO-style stickers.

We also inserted LEGOs into the foundation of a building at the Montserrat College of Art, as well as some other buildings including the Unitarian church on Cabot Street. We used friction and a small amount of silicone caulk to hold the LEGOs in place.

Inserting Lego bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat art school's Hardie Building
Inserting LEGO bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat College of Art’s Hardie Building.

Curious about whether Dispatchers have been at work in your city? Explore the Dispatchwork website for more details and photos of the installations. Many of the installations are in Europe, but some are in Asia, the Middle East, and North America.

The Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts’ Sustainability Leadership Summit 2012 on June 7 opened my eyes to the multidimensional value of supporting local businesses. This value is especially high when communities develop  business-to-business relationships.

Before attending the summit, I was already aware of how buying goods from local farms and supporting local tradespeople reduces the environmental impact of freight transportation. But, when I thought of supporting local businesses, I also thought of paying high prices for high-quality products. This perception may discourage some working class and middle class people from buying locally.

At the summit, I learned how much supporting sustainable, locally owned businesses can create a network of community resilience. Rather than being islands in the marketplace, businesses can form connections and support one another, building their local economies and creating jobs.

Andrew Meyer, co-founder of Vermont Soy and founder of Vermont Natural Coatings, described how businesses support each other in the small community of Hardwick, Vermont. Hardwick has attracted national attention because its network of local businesses generated over 100 jobs during the recession. A researcher concluded that the secret to Hardwick’s success was that local businesses supported one another. Business leaders socialized, collaborated, and shared resources. This resource sharing allowed the businesses to become more efficient and expand their operations.

Joe Grafton, Executive Director of Somerville Local First, described the massive growth of local business support networks in New England during the last few years. The number of networks has increased from three to 20. These groups are now scattered throughout New England. Many of them participate in awareness-raising campaigns such as Buy Local Week.

Tech Networks of Boston‘s CEO, Susan Labandibar, has created an infographic showing the advantages of supporting her locally owned business. Tech Networks spends 72 percent of its revenues within Massachusetts, produces 28 local jobs, invests in job skills training and tree planting, and uses a radically equitable pay scale for its employees.

Labandibar describes sustainable business practices as “generative” rather than “extractive.” Many speakers at the summit said that they want to see the role of business move toward a generative model. Sustainable businesses can partner with the communities they serve and share resources with the other businesses that are in their neighborhoods.

Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) has collected research on the benefits of encouraging locally owned business development. The advantages range from local economic stability to job creation and a stronger tax base. For more information, you can visit the websites of BALLE or the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In journalism, there’s a relatively new movement called Hacks/Hackers. I call it a movement because it appears to be more than a trend or isolated group. Journalists who are part of Hacks/Hackers seek to mix tech smarts with journalism savvy.

Is Journalism Marrying Technology?

Because I got an engineering degree before studying mass communication, it’s fascinating for me to watch this movement expand. Infographics, multimedia, Web 2.0 and other techniques of the information revolution combine with journalism’s traditional tools of the trade to create hybrid communication styles. For storytellers with graphic design and video experience, the possibilities are endless.

My first encounter with the idea of technologically advanced storytelling came via mashups. Since then, I’ve seen alternatives proliferate online. For example, Beth Kanter’s blog uses infographics and video on nonprofit communication to amplify her message. I am interested in moving this blog in that direction by adding more multimedia content.

Does Social Media Use Move Writers Closer to Gonzo Journalism?

A recent blog post reflecting on a Hacks/Hackers meetup in Boston brings up the question of how personal storytelling affects objectivity in new media journalism. Telling personal stories is a standby for me on this blog; in the world of Web 2.0, having a personality is an advantage. But this makes it difficult for writers to maintain the professional distance from their stories that many journalism organizations have expected.

While I follow rules about balance – which depend on the project I’m doing and its audience – my blog does have a personality. This doesn’t mean every aspect of my life belongs in my Twitter feed. But it does mean that social media has changed the way I write and has moved my blogging style away from traditional newswriting toward a fusion of the personal and the professional.

As a graduate student, I drew on my personal experience of living in urban communities to develop my research and thesis. That certainly colors my perspective on writing about environmental justice. In the interest of balance, I should say I’ve also worked in electronics factories and research labs which contributed to chemical pollution. I became interested in life cycle analysis while I was working in one of these factories.

There is a tradition called gonzo journalism in which writers go out and state their experiences without claiming objectivity. To the extent that social media makes journalists show their personal experiences, blogging may be bringing us closer to that style of writing. The popularity of reality TV shows that being oneself can appeal to audiences. I’m not suggesting that journalists’ lives should be open books, or that social media should make us all write like Hunter S. Thompson, but it’s interesting to watch how writers merge the personal and professional in their social media work.

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Before you bite into the next carrot from out of state, take a look at Carrot City, a preview of concepts that may someday come to an urban garden near you. A project based at Ryerson University, Carrot City seeks to add aesthetic appeal to the grungy task of growing food in urban areas. This site is the fruit of design students’ research on how to integrate agriculture with increasingly crowded cities.

Carrot City is international with a Canadian emphasis. The site’s designers published a book in 2011 and have also produced a YouTube video.

During the next century, our planet will continue to urbanize. In crowded neighborhoods, finding attractive ways to garden can be challenging. Carrot City’s case studies suggest tantalizing alternatives:

  1. Quebec’s hydroponics-based Rooftop Garden Project 
  2. The train-oriented Syracuse Sustenance System 
  3. A greenhouse placed under a highway in Toronto
  4. The South Bronx’s Via Verde housing complex
  5. Troy Gardens, a mixed-income housing complex and farm in Wisconsin 

Urban gardens bring a smorgasbord of benefits to their communities. In addition to supporting local economies, improving public health, and reducing the environmental cost of food processing and transportation, gardening may even reduce crime.

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When I first moved to Boston, I became convinced the way we design houses needs to change. A persuasive editorial in the New York Times this week agrees with me. Building cookie-cutter houses for nuclear families has left us with houses that can’t adapt easily to hard economic times, changing lifestyles, and immigration.

In Chicago, one of my friends rented an apartment which was a former coach house and was built above a stable. The apartment was near the main house on the property, but detached from it. When recent graduates need to live with their parents, semi-detached apartments like that would give them autonomy.

Making housing modular – adding entrances and exits, providing small units that are partly detached from common spaces, and not assuming that everyone in the house will be part of a close-knit family – would add flexibility to home construction. If the traditional dream of owning a house is no longer families’ top priority, apartment buildings should be able to accommodate extended families and changes in their life situations.

The New York Times article talks about immigrant families sharing suburban houses. There are at least two more angles to that story:

  1. Families of choice are rarely – if ever – a target market for housing construction. But many people who are distant from their families of origin may prefer to share space with their friends. Buildings that combine shared space with private sections or apartments could accommodate this social reality.
  2. Since the recession, recent college and high school graduates often live with their parents. Since they are eager for autonomy and may even be in long-term relationships, this lack of privacy could cause family tension. Designing sections of houses with kitchenettes and independent entrances would make their lives easier.

The New York Times article recommends turning old industrial buildings into flexibly designed lofts that can accommodate larger families and changing work situations. A loft-style building would be one potential answer to the dilemma of families squeezing into small spaces in ways that may lead to conflict and stress.

Cohousing is another practical and relatively affordable model. In cohousing developments, shared spaces are surrounded by compact apartments or houses. Cohousing is usually designed for unrelated groups who share social values about common space. The same idea could be adapted for multi-generational families.

CommonWealth Magazine has reported the controversial funding and service cuts to Boston’s MBTA transit system hinge on an unlikely competition for dollars: snow removal vs. public transit. City leaders are concerned they will lack the resources to respond to a heavy snowfall and are considering cuts to public transit funding.

As far as I know, no one has seen the irony of this problem. Public transit reduces climate change, which is responsible for at least some of our increased snow and rain here in New England. Expanding and improving public transit should be part of our strategy for fighting climate change. In the face of increased weather risks, we should hurry to fund the MBTA and expand its routes and services.

Boston’s strategy for fighting climate change takes transit into account. The transit section of the city climate website doesn’t mention the MBTA, but the report A Climate of Progress mentions it repeatedly. Organizations like the T Riders Union have been struggling for years to improve the quality of services the MBTA provides. This fight would not be necessary if we saw the collective value of building a transit system that will outlast fluctuations in gasoline availability and price.