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Crowdsourcing Coastal Planning Data

Alex Kuttesch and his coastal management fellowship mentor Jeff Herter, assistant director of the Division of Community Resilience & Regional Programs at New York's Office of Planning & Development.

Coastal management fellow developing tech that maps New York resources

Alex Kuttesch and his coastal management fellowship mentor Jeff Herter, assistant director of the Division of Community Resilience & Regional Programs at New York's Office of Planning & Development.

During his coastal management fellowship, Alex Kuttesch will work with Jeff Herter, assistant director of the Division of Community Resilience and Regional Programs in New York’s Office of Planning and Development.

By Chris Patrick, science writer

For three months in 2011, Alex Kuttesch spent his mornings interviewing fishermen on the banks of the Niagara and Buffalo Rivers. He’d just finished undergrad, and was working as an intern for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. Kuttesch, a Buffalo, New York native, asked anglers about their fish consumption habits, and taught them about toxins the water.

“Some of the hardest conversations I’ve had were on the banks of the Niagara River,” he says. “I was a stranger telling impoverished fisherman that they were feeding their families toxic fish. This was their food source and I couldn’t tell them to stop, but I did educate them about how to more safely clean and prepare their fish.”

These conversations piqued his interest in how people relate to their environment. Now, as a coastal management fellow, he will continue exploring this interface. Kuttesch, a recent graduate of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at Virginia Commonwealth University, is returning to his home state to work in the New York Coastal Management Program’s Office of Planning and Development, which advances resilient, sustainable growth of New York communities. Virginia Sea Grant supported Kuttesch’s application to the coastal management fellowship, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program that matches postgraduate students with state coastal zone management programs. Fellows benefit from two years of on-the-job training in coastal resource management and policy.

As a fellow, Kuttesch will grow the New York Coastal Management Program’s Geographic Information Gateway, an online application that allows the public to view, download, and explore mapped data sets about New York resources, such as water quality, tide levels, and beach conditions. The Office of Planning and Development also uses this data to inform their coastal planning and storm event response recovery decision making. He will help add a crowdsourcing element to the Gateway application, expanding it to collect information from users about their environment.

“The fun part about that is they haven’t done it yet, so I hope to have some creative license,” he says. “I have a chance to help figure out what the interface with the public will look like.” He envisions the app allowing users to input and track changes in coastal land, as well as add where they catch fish, spot birds, find debris. Kuttesch, who attended a forestry school and describes himself as a “huge tree nerd,” would also like people to be able to tag where they find rare trees.

“I’m excited because I’m going to help create technology that will connect people to their environment,” he adds. Kuttesch believes that giving users a chance to contribute data through Gateway will foster their connection to their natural world, and promote environmental stewardship. He hopes to develop a mobile version of the app as well.

During the fellowship, Kuttesch will also help with resiliency planning for coastal communities. Because of sea level rise, he notes that communities “need to be ready” for more severe flooding, especially on the Great Lakes, where water level rise rates are less predictable.

Kuttesch received his master’s degree in urban and regional planning, and a certificate in ArcGIS, from VCU in 2016. He received his bachelor’s degree in 2011 from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, majoring in environmental studies with a focus in policy planning and law. Between undergrad and grad school he also worked for People United for Sustainable Housing, an affordable housing nonprofit in Buffalo.