The US-based Centre for Disease Control‘s Emergency Preparedness and Response unit recently started a media campaign to prepare people for real emergencies by getting them to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.
I love this idea, and not just because I’m part of the target audience. (I’ve probably seen every zombie movie ever made, read The Zombie Survival Guide as if it were non-fiction and have copies of The Walking Dead and World War Z on my bedside table to keep things in perspective.)
I love it because it’s a great example of how ethnographic fiction and speculative design can move people.
Seriously, when was the last time that emergency preparedness procedures got picked up by almost 1000 news outlets? Or spurred people to make interesting connections between broader scientific research and public health issues?
I love it because the CDC plans to run a video contest and a follow-up evaluation to see if their message actually makes people prepare for real emergencies. (I wish more critical design/design for debate projects would try to evaluate their impact!)
And I love it because I believe that all good researchers and designers explicitly acknowledge the limits of their approach and suggest who else might continue the work they began:
“One thing the agency won’t do, though, is suggest the best way to eliminate the zombie menace. ‘We’ll let the law enforcement folks make recommendations about weapons and chainsaws and guns’.”
CDC Emergency Preparedness
Zombiepedia: The Zombie Survival Wiki
NZ Get Ready, Get Thru
The Zombie Survival Guide
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Canada Get Prepared
The Walking Dead comics + TV series
Australia Emergency Management
Christien Meindertsma is one of my favourite artist-designers.
I first learned of her work in 2007, when she published her second book, PIG 05049. Every so often I sit down with it and flip through the pages in awe. Like Haraway’s When Species Meet, PIG 05049 forever changed the way I understand human-animal relations.
“Christien Meindertsma spent three years researching all the products made from a single pig. Amongst some of the more unexpected results were: Ammunition, medicine, photo paper, heart valves, brakes, chewing gum, porcelain, cosmetics, cigarettes, conditioner and even bio diesel.”
Seriously, I had no idea! And the book itself is beautifully designed.
As Masha du Toit explains, “Christien is fascinated by the link between products and the materials they are made out of. Even when we have some understanding of what something is made of – the emotional and physical link is lacking. Christien attempts to remind us of this link.”
Her current project – One Sheep Sweater – is a bit closer to my current research interests.
“We are currently working on a new collection of knitted sweaters that are each made from the wool of one of these merino sheep. There is only one flock of merino sheep in the Netherlands, owned by Mathee Kamp. The sheep have been shorn and the wool is on the way to be washed and spun.”
I assume this builds on the work started in 2005′s One Sheep Cardigan project, which involved knitting three cardigans, each from the wool of one sheep. The sweaters come with the sheep’s identifying ear-tag, its “passport” and a trophy ribbon:
All of which is to remind myself that I want/hope to bring some of her sensibilities into a project we’re working on for the Animal Architecture Awards. Stay tuned for more on that!
“AgChat [is] a moderated Twitter discussion that takes place every Tuesday night. Since its creation in 2009, nearly 10,000 people from ten countries have attached the hashtag #agchat to their tweets, or joined in to discuss issues and share ideas related to food and farming.
Phil Gorringe—aka ‘FarmrPhil‘ on Twitter—runs a mixed farm in Herefordshire, England. It’s the most sparsely populated county in England, with the fourth lowest population density. For people living and working there permanently, especially farmers working out in the fields most of the day, often alone, that can be isolating. Gorringe believes social media is a great way to tackle that isolation. As he puts it: “Social media gives a mental advantage when farming isn’t going so well. In the last few years we’ve been dealing with lower prices for our products, difficult weather conditions, and bovine TB. It can be a lonely place. Through social media I can share my problems and realize that others out there have problems too. It makes you feel better.”
But farmers are not just reaching out to each other for support. Social media is also a powerful way of talking directly with consumers … Phil Grooby, of Bishops Farm Partners of Lincolnshire, England, started using Twitter to show consumers what it takes to get peas from the field to the table. Grooby belongs to a pea vining group that harvests about 900 acres each year. He finds social media “a useful tool when it comes to setting the record straight and showing people how farmers care for the countryside.” ‘FarmrPhil’ agrees. “Twitter is the perfect medium for farmers to engage in differential marketing in a world of commodities.” Offline, he confides: “We don’t do horrendous things as farmers, but we’ve been brought up to be terrified of the outside world seeing in. It’s been a pleasant surprise that when we tell our story via social media people aren’t horrified by what we do—it’s shown me that there’s no need for secrecy.”
Social media also offers farmers the opportunity to engage directly with policy makers. “It gives us a level playing field that we’ve never had access to before,” says Phil. “Recently a senior conservation spokesperson wrote on his blog that he didn’t trust farmers to carry out the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (an industry initiative to improve biodiversity and resource protection on farms). I challenged him on it and he apologised and changed his blog.”
So is social media just a fad? For Payn-Knoper, the answer is unequivocally ‘no.’ She says it has been a “cultural shift” to connect farmers and help them get the word out about food production. That’s why last year she was part of founding the AgChat Foundation with a handful of farmers passionate about social media. The nonprofit aims to empower a connected community of ‘agvocates,’ by training farmers to use social media. In August 2010, it organized Agvocacy 2.0, gathering 50 people from the agricultural industry to advance their social media skills at this application-only conference. They have plans for more of the same, along with outreach to the non-ag public. But Payn-Knoper also believes there is a challenge ahead: “The next big thing for social media and farming is a way for information to be more effectively managed through social hubs. Many people are just at the point of information overload.”
At Farming Futures we started to use social media about a year ago to do just that, creating a hub for useful information, news and views about climate change and farming from people across the agricultural sector. We run a user-generated blog, reach out to communities on Twitter to do research and share ideas, and make use of other tools and platforms such as Audioboo and Slideshare to share our information in more accessible and interesting ways. Social media can’t take the place of face-to-face communication, so we still run very popular on-farm workshops—but it’s a great way of getting people along.”
[CC image credit: Cross Road--Still Life, ca. 1933-1934, oil on canvas by Paul Benjamin]
It looks like NZ merino is successfully expanding its market again: Encircle Compression Therapy socks were recently named a winner in the 2011 Medical Design Excellence Awards competition and announced as a finalist in the DuPont ANZ Innovation Awards.
The product was developed for The Merino Company by Locus Research (led by Timothy Allen, a graduate of VUW’s School of Design) in partnership with the AgResearch Textiles Group and the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, and produced by Levana Textiles (part of TMC).
“Encircle is the first two layer graduated compression system that utilises natural merino fibre next to skin. Encircle consists of five novel attributes that significantly advance patient care and will create a new product category in the global compression market:
- An innovative bi-component fabric: that both absorbs and wicks moisture away from the skin creating an effective micro environment for healing and comfort in use;
- A two layer system: that effectively utilises the bi-component material to manage the build up of moisture, and to ‘build up’ the level of compression, making application easier;
- An improved method of application: that allows the end user to put on and take off the compression garment as prescribed, without clinical assistance;
- Pressure release: that aids conformance by allowing the patient to release some pressure without taking the garment off, still retaining a moderate level of pressure through the provision of a ‘bridge’; compression;
- A method of specification linked to the garment: that makes prescription easier and more accurate, ensuring correct sizing and delivering the intended compression level.”
On the research and design process:
Scoop (Locus Research press release): “Rees-Jones praises the other researchers in the Encircle team such as Dr Stewart Collie, from the AgResearch Textiles Group for ‘his amazing knowledge of textile science’. ‘Encircle’s success has come from a great team, and the fact we did user centred design. The team essentially became the patient and that is how we created the product.’ … Professor Beasley says he was impressed by the commitment of Locus Research and The Merino Company to undertake ‘rigorous testing of its product‘ prior to launching it on the market.”
“MyFarm is a big online experiment in farming and food production, giving 10,000 members of the public a say in the running of a real working farm. The farm is on Wimpole Estate, near Royston in Cambridgeshire. The MyFarm Farmers will join forces on this website to discuss and make decisions on every aspect of the farm: the crops we grow, the breeds of animal we stock, the new facilities we invest in and the machinery we use. The aim of the farm is to be profitable, and to maintain the highest standards of sustainability and welfare.
The National Trust is the country’s biggest farmer. More than 80 per cent of the 250,000 hectares of land under our care is farmed in some way. We therefore consider it to be our role to reconnect people with farming, and to promote care for the land.”
For the past year I’ve been thinking and talking with people about related social and technological projects so I’m completely fascinated by the scale and complexity of this experiment. MyFarm needs at least 6500 subscribers to be financially viable, and 10000 subscribers to create an active online community of 250 people. I’m really curious to see how the subscribers break down geographically and demographically, and hope the National Trust makes that information public.
The actual farm is run by the Farm Team, led by Richard Morris (@farmermorris), and there are three main project themes: crops, livestock and wider impacts. The broader contexts of farming are obviously of interest to me, but I imagine that I’ll most closely participate in livestock matters. For example, I was instantly struck by how the project defined the relationship between people and animals:
“The first thing to say is that as a rule, we don’t give our animals names. Why? Because they’re not pets. They’re the produce of the farm – and they’re core to making the farm a viable business. That may sound harsh, but this is a real working farm, and that is the reality. You won’t be meeting Daisy the Cow at Wimpole. That said, they do have names of a sort – but these are practical pedigree names, which reflect a cow’s parenthood, heritage and date of birth; rather more like the names you and I have.”
The status of livestock as somewhere between pets and wild animals is familiar to most people, and I suspect that most people are also hesitant to get friendly with an animal that may be slaughtered. (Did anyone else notice that wasn’t brought up as a reason not to name a farm animal?) But I wonder how much non-farmers understand or agree that livestock’s primary identity is one of commodities that derive their value through what they have been bred to produce.
But more generally, if we can take the viewer statistics from MyFarm’s YouTube channel as an indicator, people are much more interested in the livestock than anything else: 2,150 people have viewed the livestock video to-date, while only 304 have watched the wider impacts video and 162 the crop video. Perhaps it has something to do with the farm’s commitment to raising rare breeds; it’s certainly been a lively topic in the discussion forum so far and I’m impressed by the unusual stock and the debates they will inevitably raise. For example, the farm raises five rare breeds of sheep for meat and wool: Portlands, Manx Loagthans, Hebrideans, Whitefaced Woodlands, Norfolk Horns and it’s easy to support efforts to ensure their survival. But it’s also easy to see how conservation and environmental values might conflict with market values, as traditional farming methods tend to be slower. (Part of the reason that some breeds became rare in the first place is because they were not as profitable as others.)
So how does all this virtual farming work? Farmer Jon–the man behind MyFarm–explains:
“It’s pretty simple really. We’ll have one big decision every month, or thereabouts. Right at the beginning, we’ll tell you what the question is going to be. The first one will be about what we should grow on the farm. Then we’ll spend a couple of weeks in the discussions exploring that question a little bit. What do we need to know to answer the question? What is the equivalent that we can all do at home to understand farming a little better? What possible answers can we rule out early, so that when we come to vote, we’re voting on decent options? This first month, we’ll talk a lot about soil types and climate on the farm. At that point, having taken part in the discussions with us, Richard will set out his recommendation for the options for us. We’ll have a couple of days to make sure we’re happy with those options – then we vote. The vote will stay open for about a week, giving everyone plenty of time to have their say. We’ll close at the appointed time, and whatever gets the most votes, we’ll do!”
Cool. The first vote is on 26 May, when we’ll decide what to plant in one of the key fields. But, understandably, it won’t be a free-for-all:
“Now, we don’t just want to chuck the reins to you and say ‘Do whatever you like!’ This isn’t a Facebook game – it’s a real farm, with real decisions and real consequences. We won’t stop you making mistakes – we’ll need to make some mistakes along the way if we’re really going to learn anything new by doing this – but we do need to manage the risk with you at least a little bit.”
Fair enough. And for my part, I’ll post here around every vote in an attempt to summarise the discussions and reflect on the decisions, as well as document my experiences as a virtual farmer. I’m really looking forward to this, so let the experiment begin!
I really need to keep up on local farm news better because I was almost a month late in finding out about the IFarmer:Inventory app. Invented by Kiwi farmer Dan Smith, and advertised by Telecom, IFarmer is:
“The complete mobile inventory management solution for farmers and live stock agents. Real-time farm management, inventory control and reconciliation from the convenience of your mobile phone. Record and report on sales and purchases of stock, keep track of their locations, add notes, photos and other attachments. Export to desktop and farm accounting software.”
Most interesting for my research, Smith explains in the video above how the app can help farmers take care of the day-to-day requirements imposed by the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) programme and, in a further combination of technological determinism and everyday pragmatism, he explains that smartphones are “the way the world will be forced to go,” and “implore[s] people to jump on the bandwagon very quickly.”
A Dominion Post article also tells a good story about how such “grassroots” technologies come to life:
“Dan is a sheep, beef and cropping farmer and works seven different blocks within South Wairarapa and Carterton districts with mobs of stock scattered across the whole operation. He makes up to three or four transactions a day, which can be a bit of a nightmare, keeping track of all the details. It requires double and even triple entering figures into notebooks out in the field, which can be messy and inefficient.
He knew there must be a better way.
While Dan admits he is no computer guru, he has always been reasonably technologically savvy and he thought it must be possible to develop a phone application for farmers to keep track of inventory, animal health requirements and locations of mob groups, among other things. He started formulating the initial concepts on hard copy in August last year and, after much difficulty finding people with the right expertise, he employed software developers from a couple of New Zealand companies, PixelThis in Palmerston North and Simworks in Auckland, to construct the app to his specifications.”
Last month Canadian farming news site Alberta Farmer Express published an article on The Rise of the iFarmer, which focusses on smartphone apps that simply provide information on markets and weather. What seems to make the IFarmer app unique is the ability for farmers to easily input stock information and reconcile it instantly.
“Ifarmer is designed to be ancillary support to standard accounting software that most in the industry would have on their desktops already. For technology like this to be successful, it has to be straightforward to use. Dan has been conscious that farmers have to be able to get their heads around it without too much effort. Though the app he has designed has multiple features, its navigation is simple and remarkably easy to use. Dan demonstrated the input process on the farm and he even smeared his hand with dirt and water and showed that his iPhone had no problem interpreting his commands.”
Now, I wonder if it’s worth the $50 to see how IFarmer actually works, and how long it will be until similar apps appear?