Florida International University

Florida International University

Sea Level Rise South Florida: How are Waters Affecting You?

Florida International University is one of the 2014-15 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 12 winners and the Honorable Mentions.


Florida International University:

  • Robert Gutsche, Jr., Assistant Professor
  • Susan Jacobson, Assistant Professor
  • Kate MacMillin, Assistant Professor
  • Juliet Pinto, Associate Professor


  • Jennifer Fu, Center Head, GIS Department
  • Neal Hecker, Chief Content Officer, WBPT2
  • Alexa Elliott, Producer, Changing Seas
  • Caroline Lewis, Founder and CEO, Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities (CLEO) Institute
  • Jayantha Obeysekera, Chief Modeler, South Florida Water Management District
  • Ernie Hsiung, Co-Captain, Code for Miami
  • Rebekah Monson, Lead Organizer, Hacks/Hackers
  • MAST @ FIU, a public high school of 190 students

View Florida International University’s Eyes on the Rise project webpage here.

Describe your project as a tweet

Always live hyperlocal sea level rise news and mobile info. How does SLR impact where you live? #SLRSoFla #crowdhydrology

What is your live news experiment?

Our interdisciplinary project builds on WPBT2’s award-winning series, “Changing Seas” and public databases to create civically engaged news about sea level rise in South Florida. Data feeds, “crowd hydrology,” and student-led journalism will attract new audiences to local public television. Ours is a replicable, scalable model for local SLR journalism.

Our hypothesis is that crowdsourcing and community engagement will increase viewership and participation in public discussion related to rising seas. We will rely on media analysis, ratings, workshop attendance and social media traffic to measure impact. WPBT2 will measure online views; CLEO Institute will measure workshop attendance; students will measure social media metrics.

How is this project unique and innovative?

We are building a local journalism model for other coastal cities related to the growing sea level rise crisis. Our project engages South Florida communities SLR news via multiple platforms to understand the impacts on their own properties, insurance, taxes, built environment, and crucial infrastructure.

We are developing an innovative Web GIS course to bring our students to the forefront of innovative, investigative journalism and citizen science. Students will participate with local and regional scientists, journalists, leaders and educators to create unique news and interactive databases that will be used to develop flood risk maps and to engage communities with issues of SLR in real-time. Public participation in creating data visualization tools through “crowd hydrology” will help citizens better understand sea level rise and impacts.

News outlets have already embraced multimedia and Big Data, yet it’s very difficult for them to devote resources to researching and developing news and information apps for specific communities. We will help.

A class-based laboratory approach, combined with pedagogically sound interdisciplinary curriculum focused on service-learning, assessment and community involved innovation, will allow local public television journalists to investigate SLR and engage with new audiences very diverse communities in conversations now about this important issue.

At the end of the 2014-2015 academic year, we will share lessons learned, tools used, approaches taken with the broader media community to engage with more local journalists.

What technology platforms will you use?

To develop web and mobile applications accessible by our target communities, we plan to use a range of development tools, both commercial ones, such as Adobe’s Edge Suite, and freely available tools, such as WordPress, SublimeText, GitHub, Google Fusion Tables and D3 for information visualization.

We will be based in the School’s new Media Innovation Incubator Lab, which has a suite of iPads, Android tablets, software for Web development, data visualization, quantitative data analysis and GIS mapping. We are partnering with the FIU GIS lab to deliver cutting-edge interactive mobile mapping for our online presence, including elevation from LiDAR data.

How will this project provide an educational experience for students above and beyond their current learning?

Our project introduces a data-driven, citizen-based and app-based philosophy into the journalism curriculum that will fuel greater interest in science communication to diverse communities while preparing students for future careers as news entrepreneurs.

Courses will introduce students to basic coding (HTML5/CSS3 and JavaScript) that will enable them to use app development tools or to create their own mobile prototypes. One class will focus on Web GIS and data visualization, where students will learn how to integrate geo-coded data into reporting. Another class focuses on investigative journalism. Graduate students will serve as project managers for the undergraduates as they work with targeted communities.

The curriculum will ultimately educate our students on communicating this under-reported topic for South Florida’s diverse communities, using cutting edge technologies and engaging with communities in entrepreneurial ways to gather data and information.

What are the real challenges you face in implementing this?

Public television is known for reaching young children and older adults. Our students need to buy in to this partnership and by doing so will somewhat change the demographics for WPBT2. We believe this can happen because our students have very deep ties to their communities and we know they have concerns about this particular issue.

Language is also an issue. As we build on this concept, we would like to be completely bilingual, offering translations in Spanish and Creole for all our print and video projects for the broader South Florida community.

This is a hyperlocal project that builds on partnerships and projects with local media, educational organizations and community groups. However, we will need to build on partnerships outside of South Florida markets for a wider audience.

Project update: We had two unexpected challenges: First, sea level rise is a politically charged issue. We had to modify parts of our plan to avoid becoming embroiled in political conflicts. For example, our initial design for the Sea Level Rise Toolbox app included an option to let users see how sea level rise might impact their geographic area based on years – to include a visualization of what might happen in 2020, 2030, etc. However, there are several different scientific models that show what might happen at different years, and we were afraid that individuals interested in minimizing the potential impact of sea level rise would be able to criticize our application because of this. So our application shows a visualization of the impact of sea level rise based on feet of sea level rise.

Secondly, we went above and beyond to make sure that everything we produced was scientifically accurate and not misleading. For example, we carefully vetted all of the individual student-produced videos in the Sea Level Rise: Impact Web series, checking both the content and the reliability of the sources that some of the students interviewed. When we combined the videos into a half-hour documentary that was aired on WPBT2, we had to make sure the segments worked together as a whole, and we had to check and double-check the voice-over for the 30-minute documentary against the original videos, which was more complicated than we thought.

If this project works, how might the media organization and academic institution change its practices?

This project places local public journalism at the center of discussions about sea level rise – one of the most important issues ever to invade South Florida. Emerging technologies will help students capture and analyze independent data. Student-created multimedia will widen and enhance journalistic storytelling. Engaging with South Florida’s diverse communities will create a grassroots push for more information from legacy media and will build bridges between students, scientists, educators, journalists, and audiences.

This experiment will measure the future potential of incorporating research and development into their journalism to strengthen entrepreneurship, innovation, and to sustain news media into the future.

The Florida International University team provided an update on its project in a July 2015 report. The following are excerpts from that report.

Update: What is the most important impact of your experiment?

The recognition of our work has resonated across our community, students, team and partners. The documentary our students produced, “South Florida’s Rising Seas: Impact” was the most watched web series in the history of the station, WPBT2. The app has received widespread media attention. Our students have received on the ground experience and knowledge that they would not have obtained if not for the grant funded activities; one graduate student, Charnele Michel, was awarded the FIU University Graduate School Provost Award for Engagement because of her work with the project. Two professors, Kate MacMillin and Juliet Pinto, received scholar awards from FIU, and the team won the 2015 Innovative Outreach to Scholastic Journalism award from the Scholastic Journalism Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Education (AEJMC).

Update: What additional collaborations/partnerships have resulted from your project?

Our additional partnerships include Fusion, a national cable channel and website news organization, which helped us revise the interface to our Sea Level Rise Toolbox application. Our application was also integrated into Fusion’s coverage of the Miami Beach Centennial.