Eyes in the Field, Boots on the Ground

October 24, 2011

By Sandra Henderson

Wildflowers, bats, and live music are just some of the pleasant things I associate with Austin, Texas. However, after recently participating in the first ever SXSW Eco conference, I will now think of Austin as a place where a real conversation began that focused on how we can make intelligent and ethical choices regarding the care and feeding of our planet and all of its inhabitants. But I am getting ahead of myself. SXSW Eco was first brought to my attention late last summer by my friend and colleague, Damon Wyatt of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Sure, I had heard of the successful SXSW music festival. Turns out the organizers of the music festival thought that it was time for a similar high-profile conference focused on the environment and sustainability. Damon asked if he could pass my name on to Leslie Uppingham of SXSW Eco as a participant in a session focused on citizen science. Yes, I was interested in being part of a panel focused on citizen science called “Eyes in the Field, Boots on the Ground.” In this case, the boots were definitely of the western variety. The eyes represented a diversity of folks from many walks of life with a common purpose of learning more about our environment. Thus, I headed to Austin, Texas for the first ever SXSW Eco – a new conference determined to get beyond ‘preaching to the choir’ by really supporting conversations between politicians, educators, environmental scientists, social scientists, engineers, business people, activists, farmers, and environmentalists. Damon had asked me to be part of a panel focused on the role that citizen scientists have to play in better understanding the implications of environmental change. Add Janis Dickinson of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ann Haywood of the National Geographic Society, and Travis Gallo also of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and you can see that I was in great company. The audience was diverse in terms of age and background and the questions reflected multiple perspectives from practical to almost whimsical. One of my favorite quotes was sent to the SWSX Eco staff during our panel:

I have been to more eco events than I can count. Am sitting in the fascinating citizen science session and just want to thank you for working so hard to bring in such rich voices, perspectives, constituents. Have never seen such a diverse crowd/cocktail of thoughts in one event.

Social networking and wireless technology contributed to the overall success of SXSW Eco. In fact, a colleague from NEON found out about my participation because one of the panelists tweeted about our session. http://twitter.com/#!/MeLlamoRooster/status/121276760355635201 My colleague e-mailed me while I was at the conference to ask me to blog about it. Here’s her account:

I got the conference hashtag from Travis Gallo’s tweet and tapped into a flood of Twitter coverage of the event. I thought the conference seemed like an energetic and tuned-in community, with motivation and information in excess that I was able to experience from miles away via the Twittersphere.

Back in Boulder, another colleague asked me why I found this conference to be such a standout. In thinking about the things that generally are the hallmark of a good conference such as good sessions, speakers, participants, well, they were all there at in Austin. But there was something more that permeated SXSW Eco. Perhaps it was the sense of optimism and hope. Or it could have been listening to conversations that were exploring practical approaches to making a sustained difference. Maybe it was the barbecue. Until next year, I will be keeping my eyes in the field and my boots on the ground. This cowgirl will be betting her boots that SXSW Eco will be back next year with an even stronger voice. Note: Some of you may not think of bats as an Austin experience. That can change with a trip to Congress Bridge in downtown at dusk in the summer months. Millions of bats fly from under the bridge to make their nocturnal rounds each night. It is a wonderful example of nature thriving in an urban area.

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