Mississippi River Open School

Written by: John Kim
Data visualizations by: Ellen Graham

    Data analysis and visualizations created for the Data Sensing project during the Mississippi. Anthropocene River journey. Analyzing data collected with a home-built data sensing device, two groups have been involved in producing these findings: a collaboration between Ellen Graham and John Kim; and an undergraduate class on remote sensing at Macalester College that is mining the data to uncover correlational findings with public data sets about the Mississippi River valley. The latter analysis is ongoing.

    Figure 1. An interactive map showing various data types collected during the River Journey. Please note the dropdown menu in the top right corner. The data types are defined in additional detail in the “Data sensing device” section.


From August 30 – November 22, 2019, I travelled the length of the Mississippi River from its headwaters to the Gulf, as part of the Anthropocene River Journey. The group canoed significant stretches of the river. The Mississippi River is 2300 miles long, and we paddled about 800 miles of it. As part of my research on the journey, I built a data sensing device (affectionately known on the journey as the “robot”) that collected data across a number of different parameters. This information was transmitted live to the frontpage of the Anthropocene Curriculum website for the duration of the journey and saved to an online archive.

The Data Sensing project grew out of my work organizing a transdisciplinary area studies focused on the Mississippi River.(1) When the Anthropocene River project presented itself and with it an opportunity to travel its length, I jumped at the chance. Living in the Twin Cities for the past decade, I am familiar with the river as it meanders through the cities, having walked its banks on many occasions. I have taken the train from St Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans, flown the same length multiple times, and driven significant portions by car. Despite my work on projects that aspire to think about the river in a variety of spatial scales, I had never had the opportunity to see most of it first-hand. 

With a river as long and varied as the Mississippi, how do we communicate it to others in ways that enable new ways to engage and understand it? The river stretches embodied perception to its limits, even exceeds it, but data sensing and analysis augment human sensory perception. More than an extension of the senses, they constitute a reconfiguration of the human body by distributing perception across webs of networked devices and other types of mediated communication to create new epistemologies of the knowable.(2) With augmentation, we can observe systems at alternate scales and in plural temporalities, which open up possibilities for the theorization of new speculative models for planetary imaginaries.(3) This entry contributes to expanding the field of the knowable by proposing a new model for the collection and study of data about the river. The theoretical conclusions drawn from this analysis, on the other hand, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Anthropocene Review in an essay entitled, “The Fourth Coast, Revisited.” (The essay will also be republished on this website in modified form.) Inspired by migratory habitats, my reading of the Fourth Coast looks to non-human species and their activities along the Mississippi River. In contrast to Catherine Brown and William Morrish’s influential study of the expansive anthropogenic features along the Mississippi River,(4) I offer a model of the river as a distributed home for overlapping multispecies life that moves across spatial and temporal scales.

(1) See Mississippi River Studies (http://mississippistudies.org/).
(2) Hansen MBN. Bodies in code : Interfaces with digital media. New York ;: Routledge; 2006:1 online resource (xi, 327 pages) : illustrations. https://macalester.on.worldcat.org/oclc/135044478
(3) Gabrys J. Becoming planetary. e-flux. 2018. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/accumulation/217051/becoming-planetary/ (4) Brown CR, Morrish WR. The fourth coast: An expedition on the mississippi river. Design Quarterly. 1990(150):2.
(4) Brown CR, Morrish WR. The fourth coast: An expedition on the mississippi river. Design Quarterly. 1990(150):2. https://macalester.on.worldcat.org/oclc/5257668101

Data sensing device (the “robot”)

The device was built and programmed by John Kim with contributions from Anthony Tran. It was made from a Raspberry Pi Zero and written in Python. The device contained a variety of sensors and collected the following data types:

  • GPS 
    • Latitude, longitude, altitude, speed, heading, climb
  • Kinetic information
    • Accelerometer –  three axis of acceleration (gravity + linear motion) in m/s^2
    • Gyroscope – three axis orientation data based on a 360° sphere
  • Atmospheric data (temperature, humidity, pressure and VOC)
    • VOC – total Volatile Organic Compound concentration (including CO, Ammonia, Ethanol,H2, Methane / Propane / Iso-Butane) in parts per billion (ppb).
  • Water temperature
  • Other discontinuous data was collected as well, including water quality (Ph, Dissolved, Oxygen, Nitrate, Salinity, Turbidity)
  • See the Data sensing device repository for detailed technical specifications for each data type.

    Figure 2. Photos of the robot in action. By Joachim Müller-Jung (L, R) and John Kim (C).

Data visualizations

John worked with Ellen Graham (a junior at Macalester College) on analyzing and visualizing the data to illustrate findings and aesthetically reimagine the information in order to communicate the diversity of the data that was collected. Ellen led this process, using a combination of R-Studio, D3 and Leaflet. The visualizations in this essay are the results of that collaboration.

    Figure 3. Reconfigured visualization of the various data types collected during the River Journey. Vertically oriented to illustrate change over time and distance traveled. Please note the drop-down menu in the top right corner. The data types are defined in additional detail in the “Data sensing device” section.

Data highlights

Some data highlights about the journey:

  • How many data points in total? 25260 observations
    • Average per minute? 22 observations/minute
  • Number of miles recorded? 938 km (Note: not the total distance paddled as two legs of the journey were not collected.)
  • Total elevation change? 549.4‬ meters
    • Most elevation change in a day? 37.90 meters
  • Average speed? 2.02 m/s; 4.5 mph
  • Biggest change in VOCs? On Nov, 21, 2019 with a change of 1250505 units.
  • Coldest recorded day temperature? 9 C

Additional resources

Special thanks

Special thanks to fellow river journeyers for their company and assistance in the gathering of data, including Steven Diehl, Nell Gehrke, Emily Knudson, Audrey Buturian Larson, Joe Underhill, and many many others. Also, a big thank you to the members of HKW and Max Planck for assisting the creation and implementation of different aspects of this project, including Neli Wagner, Carlina Rossée, Katrin Klingan, Anna Chwialkowska, Nicholas Houde, Fiona Shipwright, Alan Woo, and many others.