“As If You Were There…” The Little Video Project That Grew

Jennifer VolkJennifer Volk’s i-Three Issue Corps project seeks to share stories of agriculture and forestry climate adaptation and mitigation practices across the 12-state Northeast Region. Recent weather variability in this area—unusually dry in the north to unusually wet in West Virginia—indicated a need for quickly produced, easily shared information for farmers, ranchers and forest owners about established adaptation and mitigation practices that were proving effective. To meet this need, in 2015 the Northeast Climate Hub University Partnership envisioned creating an online showcase of examples, and Jennifer volunteered to investigate using 360-degree panoramic photography to provide viewers with virtual tours of demonstration sites where they could see and learn about these practices from the practitioners. The impact Jennifer and the USDA Northeast Climate Hub are seeking is to create a widespread network of information, education and referral resources across the region that will speed their audiences’ adoption of these practices, when needed. At the NeXC2016 Conference, Jennifer used the Designathon to develop and refine her work plan and evaluation strategy. She also made many contacts with key informants and colleagues who could advise her on the leap she was about to make into, for her, a totally new technology. An especially important resource has been key informant and eXtension Innovation Project Awardee Shane Bradt who introduced her to story mapping, which will play an important role as the project concludes, bringing together all the tours to present the completed project and its resources to the world. Jennifer is an Extension Specialist with the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

Like most of the United States, the Northeast has been experiencing weather variability that is requiring its citizens—and particularly its farmers, ranchers and forest owners—to adapt and respond in new ways to protect their livelihoods. This includes adopting new practices or operational changes that they have not tried before and that potentially entail risk.

“Landowners want first to see a new technique being used effectively before they invest time or money in trying it,” says Jennifer Volk, Environmental Quality Extension Specialist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “That’s why demonstration sites are so effective. And it’s also why websites featuring videos and other multimedia techniques are so helpful in accelerating change.”

So in fall 2015, when Jennifer was attending a Northeast Climate Hub meeting that was considering creating an online showcase of the climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies currently practiced across the 12-state region, she stepped up and offered to explore various forms of media that might be used—and particularly 360-degree photography and videos. Her offer was accepted. Shortly thereafter she learned of the launch of eXtension’s new i-Three Issue Corps and recognized the access Issue Corps membership would give her to consulting and technology support that could guide her in this venture.

First Steps: Research and Project Management

Setting up a photo shoot.

Jennifer, with collaboration and support from Erin Lane, Northeast Climate Hub Coordinator, and Karrah Kwasnik, Northeast Climate Hub Digital Content Manager, launched the research she needed to execute the project. The research had two components. First was the 360-degree photo and video technology:  its best uses, the limitations of 360-degree multimedia for website posting, and obtaining advice and consulting from others in Cooperative Extension who had used it. Second was the content: the various adaptation and mitigation techniques (such as high tunnels and cover crops), types of agriculture or climate conditions in which each can be used, and where good examples were located throughout the region.

“In no time I recognized this was a larger project than one person could do without leveraging the effort,” Jennifer recalls. She soon found herself organizing production teams to visit and photograph sites at the land-grant universities in each of the 12 states (plus D.C.) in the Northeast Region. These teams, all working simultaneously, set out to identify the examples of techniques, the types of producers using each, and the potential demonstration sites in the northern, middle, and southern parts of the region.

“Creating a virtual field tour using 360-degree photography sounds like such an exciting thing to do,” says Jennifer. “I would go home at night and my daughter, with big expectations, would ask me what I did today, and I had to tell her—I was on the phone. Setting up meetings, organizing site visits, briefing site visitors, asking owners of sites if they might agree to the video. In every dimension, this project has grown and grown.”

Jennifer credits the Designathon at eXtension’s NeXC2016 conference for forcing her to have intense focus on her project and to get the entire plan on paper for her to take back and share with Erin. “At NeXC it went from an idea to actually happening—the design concept and project management plan to make it happen,” she says.

Getting Down to Work:  Implementation and Production

Our production team reviewing the 360 photos taken at the DSU Smyrna Outreach & Research Center: John Gattuso, Gattuso Media Design; Karrah Kwasnik, Digital Content Manager for the Northeast Climate Hub through the University of New Hampshire; and Jackie Arpie, Extension Scholar with the University of Delaware.

In mid-July, Jennifer and her three production teams took delivery of their virtual kits—each containing a 360-degree camera, a tripod, and a tablet to remotely operate the camera and view the photos in the field. However, she laments, “This technology is so new and cutting edge, that even the experienced photographers on our team are novices with this equipment!”

This required another planning step in addition to developing the shot lists once they learned of the subjects and techniques to be captured at each site. The teams needed to discuss their overall strategy and decide on standards for data collection, processing, and sharing. In addition to initial equipment testing, field sample tests were needed to test the camera settings for positioning of the camera, exposure, reflection, backlighting and other shooting complications.

Another requirement was the preparation of a set of orientation points for the site managers and comprehensive storyboarding questions to ask site hosts and managers prior to and during the shoot.

“It’s very important to document the sites carefully, since traveling and revisiting them to capture what we missed will be very difficult,” says Jennifer. “We need to know all the information about the site, the people working there, the adaptation and mitigation practices, the benefits the growers have experienced from the practices and the challenges that they faced in trying to implement them.”

Finally, in mid-August, shooting started. From the beginning, Jennifer and Erin had the end in mind: a portfolio of multimedia, web-based virtual tours they named “As If You Were There.” By mid-September, Jennifer estimated that the shooting of the project—still photos, 360-degree photos, video interviews with site managers and others—plus supporting content such as descriptive text, fact sheets, contact information, and other educational resources were approximately one-third done.

For Jennifer, the creative work she has been looking forward to will now begin: the organizing of all of this material into stories. “There’s so much to do,” she says, “editing videos, selecting what to use, then building our virtual tours on RoundMe, a platform where viewers can move through our demonstration sites from one 360-degree image to the next and interact with the images by clicking on icons that will open embedded still photos, videos, and other linked informational materials.”

The capstone of the project will be connecting all the demonstration stories together in a story map so viewers can see a geographic overview of entire Northeast project and visit the sites that interest them.

Meanwhile, the project continues to grow with now as many as 22 stories planned. The tours will be released in phases as they become available, with the initial release planned for early 2017. First audiences to be targeted to view the virtual tours will be Extension professionals and other university researchers and technology service providers so that they can consider both the content and the approach for their possible use.