The Asthma Files – FEMA Trailer Edition

by Mary Martialay on July 14, 2011

FEMA trailer in Alabama

FEMA trailer near a tornado stripped home foundation in Alabama, courtesy of Nicholas Shapiro

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the trailer homes FEMA issued to victims of Hurricane Katrina – trailers that became the subject of scrutiny and recrimination amidst allegations of formaldehyde contamination – now is your chance to take stock.

As part of the ongoing Asthma Files project, Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, a doctoral student in the Rensselaer Department of Science and Technology Studies, is working on a multimedia project mapping the path of the trailers from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the present day.

Costelloe-Kuehn, along with collaborator Nicholas Shapiro from Oxford University, will begin work on the project during a four-week residential NEH-funded multimedia residency at the University of Southern California. The residency runs from July 18 to August 12.

Costelloe-Kuehn and Shapiro’s project, “Networking Asthmatic Spaces: Collaborative Cartographies of the American FEMA Trailer Diaspora,” will become part of The Asthma Files, an electronic public archive of knowledge about asthma designed to promote scientific and environmental health literacy.

The online platform has been created with input from social scientists, artists, activists, students, and others concerned about asthma, as a way to facilitate collaboration and dialogue among the groups. The archive includes text, still images, video, and audio that illustrate multiple perspectives on asthma — from the vantage point of affected people in different locales and communities, health care providers, and scientists from many different disciplines.

I asked Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn a few questions about his involvement in STS, the Asthma Files, and the upcoming Networking Asthmatic Spaces project. As an introduction, he provided a link to this article about FEMA trailers showing up in tornado ravaged Alabama, which was, he said, informed by his and Shapiro’s preliminary research.

Here’s what he had to say about his work:

Tell us about the program you’re enrolled in

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS is an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing the effects of science and technology on society and the environment and how policies and practices around science and technology might be improved. The department is made up of professors with training in anthropology, sociology, history and interdisciplinary programs like the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. Students in STS study all kinds of things, from medical tourism to citizen science to the challenges of collaborating across disciplinary boundaries.

What is your research about and how does it fit into The Asthma Files?

In my first couple years here at RPI, I focused on activism around the media, especially community-based projects like the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy (go check it out!). I then shifted focus to issues around environmentalism. My current research ties these two earlier threads together and looks at the development of “environmental media systems.” Each chapter of my dissertation looks at a different environmental media project, the context that it is produced within, the goals driving the project and the design principles guiding the work.

For the past three years I’ve been working on the structure of the Asthma Files website and developing content for the Communicating Asthma section. The Asthma Files is an electronic archive of text, images, video and audio that illustrate multiple perspectives on asthma – from the vantage point of affected people in different communities, health care providers and scientists from many different disciplines. I’m interested in the Asthma Files as a digital platform for moving social science and humanities research into the public domain, aiming to advance environmental, health, scientific, and media literacy.

Describe the “Vectors-CTS Summer Institute on Digital Approaches to American Studies” residency – what will you be working on, what are the advantages being able to participate in the institute at the University of Southern California”?

An overall description of the residency is here. The project my collaborator Nick Shapiro and I will be working on is titled “Networking Asthmatic Spaces: Collaborative Cartographies of the American FEMA Trailer Diaspora.”

During the residency, we’ll create a multimedia, oral history enriched map of how asthma-inducing temporary housing units, originally built to accommodate Gulf Coast residents that were displaced by the hurricanes of 2005, have been resold across the United States, in tandem with a widening foreclosure crisis. We are in the process of gathering audio, video and written stories about the trailers across their various trajectories. We will embed multimedia stories across the various locations of selected FEMA trailers and users will be able to track individual trailers as they move across the country. We will encourage users to upload their own experiences, photos, and videos to enliven the dense mesh of trailer trajectories. Finally, we’ll be running air quality tests in at least 50 trailers, along with before and after surveys and interviews, in order to learn about how information from air tests might help people care for their indoor air quality.

I think the biggest advantage of this fellowship will be the chance to learn from the other fellows. We’re really excited to share ideas and get a better feel for the wide range of work happening in the emergent field of digital humanities.

What do you hope people will learn from your work?

We hope our project will enhance users’ capacity to:

  1. visualize connections between environmental, public health and economic crises,
  2. move across scales, engaging material that situates them inside the trailers and the lives of residents, then zooming out to see how hazards at the local level are distributed nationally,
  3. understand how scientifically-engaged media can generate new perspectives on complex problems.

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