Virtual communication, physical community : leveraging social tools to build a sustainable food network in Raleigh, North Carolina
Master's Thesis // North Carolina State University
Kelly M. Murdoch-Kitt
The BIG questions
How can a community create collaborative visualizations by combining objective data and subjective experience, resulting in new information geographies?
What happens if this information reveals relationships between a physical location and its digital counterpart, or is removed from a physical context?
Derek (an intermediate-level gardening learner) meets Michelle (an experienced gardener) via the mobile community interface after she responds to his gardening question. This is an abbreviated version of the Derek's full user flow.
Mobile introduction leads to in-person meeting
In an example of situated learning, Michelle is planning an outing to a nearby nursery and invites Derek to meet her there so she can give him some advice on choosing organic seeds and seedlings for his vegetable garden.
Public Wall Scenario
Members of the local food community, Derek (intermediate) and Michelle (expert) head to the local farmers' market. They interact with a touch-screen wall at the market, which not only helps facilitate their purchases, but gives them more detailed information on growing practices and seasonal availability. What they learn from the wall leads to conversation and information exchange with vendors and other market patrons.
Michelle wants to buy strawberries, but with so many options to choose from, she will use the wall to help guide her purchase.
She searches which vendors are selling berries today, and explores some of her options. She notices that one farm, Good Neighbor, is located close to the market. She decides to learn more about the farm and its growing practices, then uses the wall to learn where the farm's stand is located in the market. She sees that the farmer, Lou Carter, is tending the stand today.
Michelle and Derek head to Lou's stand to check out his strawberries. They look great! They introduce themselves to Lou, learn more about his farm, and buy a basket of berries from him.
Following a series of surveys, I created several matrices of the responses, and sorted them into categories of novice, intermediate, and expert. Based on these categories, I developed lists of each group’s specific goals, attitudes, and behaviors.
The products of these responses include three personas: Michelle is advanced, Derek is intermediate, and Bill is a novice regarding sustainable foods. For each persona, I created corresponding “service ecology” maps (Moggridge). The maps were useful to explore possible design opportunities extending from the personal level out through the levels of the physical community (city, state, region, etc).
This design investigation leverages virtual and face-to-face communications to intervene in two concepts that have become opaque, distant, and fractured in American culture: food and the local community. Food in 21st century American culture is a myth constructed by science, advertising and marketing, from which the hegemony of industrial agriculture has emerged. Conversely, many of the people who identify with the sustainable agriculture movement are currently a latent group. By visually connecting different levels of participants to information and to each other, this latent group comes into existence as a physical community linked and reinforced by ongoing virtual communications. Eventually, participants’ activity in the community and the information they contribute creates a visual record that can become valuable beyond the immediate community of interest as policy-makers seek evidence of public activity and interest around the topic of sustainable agriculture in North Carolina.
An interface of interactive maps, accessible via public wall, private browser, and mobile device, is customized by the community’s activities and contributions, emphasizing the proximity of locations, individuals, organizations, and information relevant to the topic of sustainable agriculture in central North Carolina. This design investigation also explores expressions of individual identity and community identity, communication and searching functions, and different types of data visualization. These categories enhance the function of the virtual community as a learning tool, and guide both the design of the virtual community and face-to-face interactions.
The American food system today could benefit from clarity to reconnect consumers with food as a natural product of the land, integral to their personal health. American experiences with food are experiential when they should be reflective. This project proposes a ubiquitous virtual system that crowdsources reflective food decisions, enables product traceability, and helps different levels of conscious consumers make critical decisions within their local foodshed. Members create individual maps of their activities, interests, and experiences relevant to the local food community; these maps combine to create a holistic image of the conceptual community within the geo-spatial context of Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition to promoting the actors within the local, natural, sustainable agricultural network, the collaborative visualizations foster community learning through exchanges in both virtual and physical environments.
These following are my visual interpretations of the major theoretical frameworks underpinning my graduate thesis.
Five Experiential Elements of Community
Design anthropologist Elizabeth Tunstall’s “Five Experiential Elements of Community” articulate aspects of control, responsibility, communication, personal development, and community awareness. This diagram for community appears throughout the thesis document to measure and describe various aspects of the sustainable food community.
Through the Five Experiential Elements of Community, the previously unconnected and scattered sustainable food community—represented by Clay Shirky’s model of Latent Groups—comes together as a proximal learning community (which connects to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s model of situated learning).
Situated learners gain knowledge from each other through direct communication, observation and mentorship. The technology of the community assists in matching specific individual interests and proximity. One important aspect of this community’s learning experience is the visualization of both factual information gleaned from the locations associated with the community, as well as the discursive data generated by members’ responses to information, events, and each other.
Center for Envrionmental Farming Systems (CEFS)
Ultimately, the goal is for community participants to see themselves as part of the model outlined by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), which describes an idealized and effective sustainable food community.
A food system describes the cycle of growing, distributing, eating and recycling our food, and all the factors that affect it.
—CEFS, North Carolina State University