CoalSwarm:History

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This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

In the spring of 2007, author Ted Nace became interested in the emerging nationwide movement to stop the building of a large wave new coal-fired power plants and coal-based synthetic fuels plants. Nace began an informal project of tracking the 151 proposed plants listed in a May 2007 survey by the U.S. Department of Energy. Finding the project to be a bigger undertaking than he had orginally expected, Nace enlisted help. In his account of the anti-coal movement, Climate Hope, Nace describes the susequent steps in the development of the project:[1]

The project I had casually initiated in the spring to track down the status of all 151 plants was turning out to be a bigger undertaking than I had originally imagined. To move it forward, I enlisted the help of several part-time researchers: philosophy graduate student Meilin Chinn, journalist Michelle Chandra, and direct action organizer Adrian Wilson. Each of them became adept at digging through press reports, environmental and financial filings, and activist Web sites, then summarizing the various data into succinct status reports. As our database neared completion, the group continued running across cases of coal plants being canceled, abandoned, or placed on hold. I felt that something significant was taking place. Looking for historical parallels, I read up on the history of the anti-nuclear movement. During the 1970s and 1980s, a combination of grassroots protest and deteriorating economic factors had forced utilities to cancel scores of nuclear plants. I was convinced that the anti-coal movement, though lacking the prominence the “No Nukes!” movement, had established even broader roots across American society and could be on a pace to accomplish more. While “No Nukes!” had been concentrated on the East and West coasts the anti-coal movement was growing in every region of the country.
Others were also tracking the phenomenon. Beginning in the summer of 2007, Matt Leonard at Rainforest Action Network (RAN) had periodically released a summary of plant cancellations and other victories entitled “Moving Closer to a Coal Moratorium.” In June the list topped a dozen and continued growing. In November a media report published in the Denver Post listed ten cancellations of “clean coal” projects alone. At about the same time, a new Web site appeared with the blunt title Coal Deathwatch Map, showing the location of plant cancellations around the country. A month later, an overseas Web site reported that seventeen U.S. coal plants had been canceled in little more than a year.
The report that seventeen plants had been canceled was astonishing, yet I began to think that the actual number would end up being even higher because our own status list showed that in several instances utilities had cancelled plants quietly without notifying the press. In November I met with several organizers from RAN, and the discussion turned toward how the various groups in the far-flung anti-coal movement could most readily share the various informational resources on coal plants that they were developing. One such resource was Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA), a worldwide database on carbon dioxide emissions created by the Center for Global Development. Another was the Dirty Kilowatts database maintained by the Environmental Integrity Project, which provided information on coal plant emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury, and other pollutants. A third database, maintained by RAN, contained information on financial institution funding of coal mines and power plants.
Among the various databases, the most widely accessed was maintained by the Sierra Club. It incorporated both RAN’s and CARMA’s data alongside its own summaries of legal challenges to coal plants. The downside of the Sierra list was that only Sierra’s own staff could update or expand the information it contained. At the meeting with RAN’s organizers, I mentioned that my friend Earl Killian had suggested that a wiki—an online information database with multiperson-editing capability—would not only allow our own working group to post information more efficiently but would also allow general posting of information by other activists. I liked the wiki approach, since the resulting collaboration would transcend the boundaries of any one group, making it ideally suited to the rapid expansion and increasing diversity of the no-coal movement.
Scott Parkin, one of RAN’s organizers, gave me the names of several activist wikis and suggested that I contact them. One was SourceWatch, an information clearinghouse sponsored by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) in Madison, Wisconsin. I emailed John Stauber, director of CMD, and he immediately wrote back inviting us to merge our status reports on the 151 proposed coal plants into the 35,000-article wiki database that CMD had already built on topics including the public relations industry, Congress, nuclear power, and Big Tobacco.
Stauber’s invitation was appealing for a two reasons. First, by piggybacking onto an existing wiki rather than creating a wiki from scratch, we’d save ourselves time and money. Second, SourceWatch had already accumulated a high degree of “Google juice,” that is, the tendency for search engines to give high rankings to content in the SourceWatch wiki. This was due to the large number of Web sites that already linked to SourceWatch articles, as well as the denseness of internal linkages among SourceWatch articles. Both factors are judged by Google’s engine to be indicators of a Web page’s usefulness to someone seeking information.
Stauber and his collaborator Sheldon Rampton had already thought long and hard about the usefulness of wikis for building activist communities and enhancing collaboration among groups. Through their efforts, SourceWatch had developed ways for each topic focus within the wiki to develop its own unique identity and sense of community. To identify SourceWatch pages on the topic of coal, we settled on the name CoalSwarm to reflect the anarchic diversity of the no-coal movement and designed a suitable “badge” featuring a cluster of bees.
It took just a few weeks for our small crew to convert our database of coal plants into wiki format. Kaethin Prizer, whose experience included working as a project manager at Yahoo and as a professional book editor, spearheaded the effort. Once we had finished moving the coal plant information into the CoalSwarm wiki, we began creating additional wiki articles on power companies, lobbying groups, citizen groups, and protests, as well as on topics such as “clean coal” and “mountaintop removal.”
CoalSwarm quickly turned into a popular site for activists, journalists, students, and others to find information on coal, and over the following months the site attracted hundreds of thousands of visits and grew to over 1,500 pages of information. I was particularly pleased that anyone, anywhere, could post information—some posts came from activists as far away as Australia and Europe. In order to create a page or add information to an existing page, the only prerequisite was to create a log-in name. What kept things honest was that, according the rules of SourceWatch, every morsel of information had to be linked to a published source. Activists, journalists, students, policy analysts, or anyone else using CoalSwarm didn’t have to take our word for any piece of information on the site. They could click on the footnote and judge the veracity of the data for themselves.
On occasion, we were asked why we didn’t simply post the information we were collected on Wikipedia, the original wiki and by far the largest. An advantage of SourceWatch over Wikipedia was the team of professional editors employed by CMD to police the site. On Wikipedia, information on business misdeeds and controversies is often quietly deleted by image-conscious corporate officials and public relations firms. SourceWatch’s editors prevent that from happening, making it a more reliable place to build a clearinghouse on controversial industries such as coal mining and electricity generation.

References

<references>

  1. Ted Nace, Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal, "Chapter 10: Progress Report: 59 Coal Plants Down," CoalSwarm (2010) p. 101-105