Project JAR–back in Manhattan

Learning to fly

Learning to fly

The Studio’s guest bloggers this week–Maddy Cohen and Kate Burrows–are back in Manhattan. They have finished their driving journey around the United States to not only collect stories of, but share and raise awareness of, clean water issues in this country. Things did not always go as planned…but finished well. Here is their post introducing Project JAR (Just a Ride) to WLS readers a few weeks ago.  Keep reading to see what happened.    


Project JAR made it back to the east coast in one piece, with a collection of stories that we are truly excited to be able to share. That being said, it was not always easy (and sometimes downright frustrating). Below we detail some of our proudest accomplished goals as well as our tougher obstacles.


Rahul Gupta, MD Executive Director/Health Officer, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, WV

Rahul Gupta, MD
Executive Director/Health Officer, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, WV

We were successful in collecting stories from almost all of our case study areas, though some more easily than others. One of our main fears going in to this project was that the people we wanted to talk to would be reserved in sharing their stories (or even refuse to divulge). Fortunately, in almost every case we found the complete opposite.

This was perhaps the most inspiring part of Project JAR – everyone we spoke with was not only willing to discuss the water issue they were facing, but often so passionate that it was impossible to not feel enthused and moved listening to their stories. One of our first conversations, with Dr. Rahul Gupta in West Virginia, helped us to believe in the value of sharing stories and experiences like this. He could not speak enough about the importance of communication, and people down the road reiterated this and matched our passion for open dialogue.

Universal Themes

Dr. Gupta touched on an idea that we revisited many times along our trip. There was often a disconnect between the scientific community, policy makers, affected population, and general public. This disconnect inhibits progress, making a challenging scientific problem even more complicated to resolve. Furthermore, internal polarization can divide each of these groups so that the issue becomes emotional. This can prevent collaboration even though all parties often want a common solution.

For example, the state of Louisiana has a Coastal Master Plan that includes new diversions of the Mississippi River. Some scientists informed this coastal plan and agree that this is the best way to restore the coastal wetlands, while others argue that this is inefficient and will cause more problems than it will solve. A lack of scientific consensus has contributed to a divide in public opinion, specifically among commercial fishermen who might be adversely impacted. With miscommunication and misunderstanding of proposal and the science behind it, the general public seems to feel uninformed. As a result of these divisions, policy makers have had difficulty executing this proposed plan.

We see a lack of communication and open dialogue amongst these different communities as a primary inhibitor to the resolution of this issue. Dr. Gupta mentioned a similar cycle in West Virginia, as did Dan Ware in New Mexico – we’ve seen this arise repeatedly across the country.


Challenges in Planning

The most difficult case study, and perhaps the only place in which we really struggled to execute our project well, was in Texas, where we had hoped to talk about fracking. This case was unique in that we had not pre-scheduled interviews, which was our first mistake. In the earlier case studies (West Virginia, Virginia, Louisiana, and Alabama) we had been able to generate spontaneous interviews once we arrived and so we did not worry that we had none lined up for Texas. However, we had great difficulty generating any conversation about fracking and water issues. We ultimately interviewed a professor from the University of North Texas that proved to be quite interesting, and we realized that a reluctance or disinterest in talking about the issue is a valuable observation.

Because we think fracking is important and want Americans to be informed about what is happening, here is a graphic that we use.  Please read more about fracking on our website.

Mooney, C. 2011 “The Truth About Fracking.” Scientific American. 305: 80-85.

Mooney, C. 2011 “The Truth About Fracking.” Scientific American. 305: 80-85.

Use of Technology


We purposefully used simple technology, as we highlighted in our earlier blog post. These served us very well – in traveling light we did not have to break up the flow of any conversation, or create any unnecessary formality. We were overall very pleased with how the project turned out with these tools.


The only technical glitch that we ran into was in recording our single phone interview. In all other cases, we used two phones to ensure that we had a backup in case one failed – in the only phone interview that we conducted that was not an option, and the recording failed to pick up the beginning of our conversation. Fortunately, we did collect some audio that we were able to use for our website, but in the future we would look in to alternative options for recording audio of phone conversations (though the situation did not arise again on this trip).

On another note, we had intended to host ongoing conversations about these case studies as we posted them on the website. We would have benefitted from discussing a more active plan to use our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to generate buzz and conversation surrounding our project. While we did promote what we were doing on these social media outlets, they took a backseat to our foremost goal of ensuring the integrity of the conversations. As a result we did not create the online community we had anticipated. Now, it is evident that if one of us (or a social media-savvy third partner) had focused more on the task of promotion, we might have facilitated more of the online exchange we had originally hoped to have. Knowing that, we will keep the website running for the next few years, with the potential of adding new projects onto it and improving our online skills.

Moving Forward

This project was an unprecedented and incredible experience for both of us. We were fortunate enough to be able to post guest blogs for WLS and for the Earth Institute that encouraged us to reflect upon our choices along the road. This helped us maintain perspective and truly consider what was working or not working while our project was underway. Both of us are starting graduate programs at Mailman School of Public Health in the fall and will surely be continuing to design and execute our own projects in the future. Project JAR has served as a powerful and exciting baseline, from which both of us hope to continue to build and grow.

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