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Crowdempowering to Solve Environmental Issue

This article was originally published on The Jakarta Post

One day in 2015, Saripah, a 22-year-old young girl, said softly: "Mother, I’m having a hard time breathing." Saripah's mother, Siti, immediately took her to a hospital, but unfortunately her daughter soon died of lung failure. Her respiratory organs looked dark although Saripah never smoked. Siti said that the smoke from peatland fires had killed her daughter.

The story of Saripah and the other villagers could be found on the Ranu Welum Foundation’s website, established by a youth from Dayak community, Emmanuela Shinta, to promote the danger of and bring an end to forest and land fires especially in Central Kalimantan. Creating stories is considered a new and powerful strategy to bring facts and events on the ground into the comfortable space of those individuals who care to act together as part of the crowd to make a difference.

With the advancement of communication and information technology, crowd movement grew by utilizing such technology. The term crowdsourcing was introduced in 2006 by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson to describe a web-based business model that gathers solutions proposed by a network of individuals. The concept of crowdsourcing has been applied in various forms, ranging from crowdfunding like Kitabisa where a group of individuals donate funds to support a project or cause, to a platform that allows individuals to verify satellite imagery to help environmental campaigns and humanitarian activities like Tomnod.

Thanks to an ever increased connectivity, it is now fairly handy for individuals to collectively contribute to a particular project or cause in the form of ideas, time, expertise, or funds.

However, the connectivity should also be accompanied by an equal empowerment amongst individuals who take part within such system. The Internet and crowdsourcing should be used not only to capture and deliver aspirations of the community, but also to achieve an equal empowerment. This concept is called crowdempowering, a situation in which a platform could be used not only for the initiatives’ owners to solve problems but also for the educated communities to collectively solve problems in a bottom-up manner.

In fact, in today’s globalization era that tends to divide people and increase inequality, crowdempowering could be powerful. Platforms such as Coursera, for instance, holds promise to enable people who have limitations in terms of geographical distance, age and fund to learn – outside a classroom setting – through an open education. With platforms that allow crowdempowering, anyone can fulfill their need to learn and understand the right information regardless of their location.

Crowdempowering approach could also be used to solve growing problems in our environment. Deforestation and land-use change contribute the most to Indonesia’s emission (47.7%). In Indonesia, peatland in particular needs dire attention as it holds approximately 22-43 gigatons of carbon, equivalent to the emissions released from 17-33 billion private vehicles within a year.

Ironically, peatland is often converted into agricultural land and plantations. In the 2015 fires, more than half (52%) of the fires took place on peatlands, emitting huge emissions and haze that harms the health of community.

In this situation, we can deepen crowdsourcing’s function to empower communities from different levels to jointly protect peatlands. Experience and research have suggested that if managed well, crowdsourcing holds promise in solving problems with satisfactory outcomes. That said, how can communities leverage crowdsourcing to empower each other and to achieve goals collectively?

First, by providing a forum for users to educate each other and share information. For example, Pantau Gambut (pantaugambut.id), an online platform established by a coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs), provides a platform for government, business actors, CSOs and public to jointly monitor the development of peatland protection efforts undertaken by all stakeholders as well participate actively by submitting analysis, stories and experiences regardless of where they are.

Pantau Gambut can be used as a crowdempowering platform for communities to inform each other about peatland in their respective locations, share the importance of peatland in the context of environmental protection and human wellbeing, show how local communities can benefit from peat while protecting it at the same time, as well as describe the progress and challenges of peatland restoration activities. Perhaps more importantly, such crowdempowering could produce solutive ideas to support the peatland protection and restoration championed by the Indonesian government.

Second, by establishing a sense of urgency. A crowdsourcing platform alone will not suffice to empower communities without the sense of urgency on the part of communities to use the platform and collectively solve problem. Thus, crowdempowering could not stop in the online realm, but rather should expand to the offline world where stakeholders need to actively develop programs to educate and encourage communities to care for the environmental protection.

Third, by being inclusive towards communities who are unable to voice their aspirations due to lack of access to technology. In spite of the increasing internet penetration in Indonesia to 20% in 2016, millions of Indonesians, including those who live close to forests and peatlands, still do not enjoy access to Internet and technology. Capacity building programs aimed at such groups could be established so that they know how to use Internet and technology in a positive way and as such could lead to a movement.

Finally, crowdempowering would only succeed should there be good intention from the initiatives’ owner to invest their resources to start a process, provide a platform that a network of individuals could use easily and develop offline activities to improve public awareness and participation in the environmental protection issue. Without those prerequisites, crowdempowering remains a concept without meaning and power.

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