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Participatory watershed science


Atlasbiowork, short for "atlas of biological work," is a name for an open-ended, locally adaptable and participatory framework and mapping platform (perhaps perch is a more modest term than platform) for questions about the fundamental energy flows, cycles, and processes that underlie our agriculture and our civilization, and how we influence them over time (participatory watershed/community science). The Atlas consists of:

  1. Transparent, repeatable, local measurements and observations of fundamental ecosystem functions such as soil health, watershed function, carbon and water cycling, the circle of life (wholes more than parts, but localized). This could also include observations of economic functions (local multipliers, flows of tax dollars, public expenditures for infrastructure, repair, disaster relief, etc.) 
  2. Participatory and collaborative human efforts that collect, frame, and interpret this kind of data. These social processes (which include participatory community science projects) can evaluate programs, projects, policies, and prevailing habits and beliefs in terms of large contexts or wholes such as people, land, and money (again, these have to be localized to be relevant). These efforts can actively recognize local possibilities and opportunities that have a basis in biophysical reality (even if imperfectly measured). People can better take responsibility for soil health and watershed function, and learn to work with the incredible power of the circle of life. For example, high school students measuring water infiltration rates in cooperation with farmers and ranchers, or citizens and local officials totaling up road-repair expenses for their county or town after a major storm.
  3. The design, tools, and technology (such as user interfaces and data platforms) that facilitate and enable these.

feedback: the guidance of a system based on actual performance rather than expected performance.

This is the kind of shared intelligence and open community science we need, and the Soil Carbon Challenge, people using the web app atlasbiowork, Rancher-to-Rancher, and some citizen science projects embody one or more of these elements. 

But we typically do the opposite! This is what the Atlas of Biological Work is NOT:

  1. An exclusive focus on parts: problems, symptoms, species, best management practices, and wedge issues such as cattle and methane, glyphosate, organic or regenerative certifications, zoning, weeds, pests, or carbon "sequestration." We spend trillions on soil erosion, sedimentation, nutrient leaching and runoff, wildland fires, the war on weeds and pests, endangered species, flood mitigation, and drought relief. We are often unable to address underyling causes such as the acceleration of water cycling or the lack of soil aggregation. Data is often inaccessible, siloed, and doesn't show change over time. "Practices" are crudely categorized, with almost no allowance for the vast differences in management skill and application.
  2. The questions are narrowly framed by experts, institutions, and organizations, often with vested interests in treating the symptoms or publishing research papers. For example, lists of approved indicators that should be measured, some kind of rote compliance with institutional or academic thinking. This results in forecasting, "education" on best management practices, and category- or rule-based systems that override or neglect the imagination, creativity, and autonomy of land managers and stakeholders, and the enormous complexity and variability of our relationships with our lands and waters. 
  3. A scenario, model, or prediction of some imagined future state, or mere advocacy for such. The Atlas focuses on the present situation, and the opportunities for change.
  4. A single website, tool, or branding, or any kind of design, technology, incentives, and funding that keep the framing and participation narrow, maintain competition between the parts and the problems, and keep data in separate silos (such as water issues and soil issues).
  5. Cool tools and technology for its own sake, or a digital-only effort.

As Buckminster Fuller noted, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." We intend for this new model, Atlas of Biological Work (to become, to be broadly collaborative, flexible, localized, based on site-specific observations, and helping to connect stakeholders and executive assets (such as entrepreneurial farmers and grassroots groups) around soil health and watershed function. We invite suggestions and collaborators on any or all of the three elements (email below). We're interested in working with anyone, including local conservation districts, landowner groups, and watershed groups to begin or extend their efforts in the what, why, and how of the Atlas:

  1. What: the observations and measurements themselves
  2. Why: the need for participation and broad, flexible framing
  3. How: design, technology, and tools

Learn how to use web app atlasbiowork

Download a short booklet on the Atlas of Biological Work