It truly felt like getting the golden ticket yesterday for the opportunity to host a one hour conversation with Audrey Watters as one of the Connected Learning sessions focused on the Design by Equity theme of the 2015 DML Conference.

I got to ask her to talk about the use of the word myth (is it meaning a falsehood or an epic story?), how biases are infused into technology, what she would do as head of LA schools instead of doling out iPads, how much the ed tech industry has changed in the last year (“not at all”)– it was pretty much serving up questions and letting Audrey expand on them. Unscripted.

The Connected Learning site for the session has the archive (both video and audio), a storify of the twitter action, and a set of reference links.

They and DML organize these hangouts to a superb level, I definitely will borrow their approach to set up hangouts- advising participants to place the camera at eye level, keeping a non distracting background, etc. The latter is tricky in my little cluttered house, I ended up pulling my usual table out and sitting with the window shade behind me, propping up the laptop on my old Geology textbooks (and people say textbooks have little value!), and clipping the notes to a box.

Hangout Setup
flickr photo shared by cogdogblog under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Wait, what about the volcano?

Audrey always wears unique t-shirts (see the end of the video where she explains the one she wore). I found at the bottom of my black t-shirt drawer (yes one whole drawer for black) one I picked up when I was in Iceland in 2008— its not a technology related shirt but somehow a metaphor snuck in.

The image in the shirt shows the 1973 Eldfall eruption on the Iceland island of Heimaey. I remembered the gist of the story, but brushed up via Wikipedia.

Sitting astride the active tectonic rift zone of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, volcanoes are nothing surprising in Iceland. They tend to be rather disruptive, as travelers in Europe learned in 2010 from the eruption of the Unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull.

As natural disruptions go, in January 1973, there were signals of growing activity as measured in earth tremors, below the human threshold, but recorded by seismometers. So there are signals of disruptions before they disrupt.

The town of Heimaey was completely evacuated in May 1973, some 5300 people. Think about how a region can take care of people adversely affected by something beyond their control:

Within six hours of the onset of the eruption, almost all of the 5,300 people of the island were safely on the mainland. A few people remained to carry out essential functions and to salvage belongings from threatened houses. Cattle, horses and sheep on the island were slaughtered. On the mainland, friends, relatives and strangers offered shelter and housing. By the end of the day, all 5,300 people were spread around cities and towns on the mainland.

The threat to the town was not only possible destruction, but more significantly the flowing lava threatened to cut off its important economic asset, the harbor. Is a community helpless to a disruption?

Those in charge sought the advice of an expert, not a geologist, but a physicist, University of Iceland Professor Þorbjörn Sigurgeirsson, who had studied and experimented with control the advance of lava from volcanoes like Surtsey by spraying the lava with cool sea water.

But not on the scale that Heimaey faced. Cut to the end of the story is that boats and pumps were able to control and redirect the movement of the lava, and save the harbor. More than that, the ash from the eruption was used to fill land to expand the airport, and the experiments led to developing a system to harness the geothermal energy of the active lava flow:

Knowledge gained from the water-cooling operation during 1973 was directly applied to the construction of a district-heating system for the town of Vestmannaeyjar on Heimaey, in which thermal energy was extracted from the cooling lavas. During the latter part of 1973 and early 1974, scientists and engineers from the University of Iceland, residents of Vestmannaeyjar, and the Icelandic engineering firm, Verkfræðistofa Guðmundar og Kristjáns hf., prepared the conceptual basis for the creation of the district-heating system. Initial experiments were begun in 1974, but it was not until late 1979 that the final engineering design for the system was approved.

By 1983, a 5 megawatt heat-exchanger plant, in which steam produced by spraying water on cooling lava flows at depth in the eastern part of the new lava flows, was circulating hot water to more than 50 percent of the buildings in Vestmannaeyjar.

I’ve not read it before, but knowing the writer, I bet John McPhee’s account of this history is superb (New Yorker paywall, sigh).

What does a volcano have to do with equity and technology? I’ll leave filling in the metaphor as an exercise…

No, what I came away from the conversation with Audrey is that we (most broadly) are not helpless to change the way things are done, no matter how big and over powerful they seem. You can either just give in to the forces, let the lava flow, or try applying some knowledge, intuition, cooperation… and spraying it with water. And then turn the outcomes into opportunities.

flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The post "Technology, Equity, and a Town That Fought off a Volcanic Disturbance" was originally rescued from the bottom of a stangant pond at CogDogBlog ( on May 16, 2015.

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