Week 12: America Dumps

During my Vintage Fountains project, I enjoyed the anticipation and reveal of each new fountain. Sure I could visit the image results page of any search engine, but with that project I found myself spending time with each individual picture, considering the life of the object(s) pictured and the photographer’s decisions. I enjoyed the extremely slowed-down, one image-at-a-time pace. But that was on Twitter, and right now Instagram rules the photo sharing scene.

I’ve been on Instagram for two weeks now learning how to scrape images from public hashtag pages, only to remix and throw them right back from whence they came (see @autoechoes). In the process of playing, I observed content from some of more popular hashtags. There’s a tag for nearly everything and plenty of skin, faces, food, and camera beautiful landscapes and lifestyles. I found the quantity of posts astonishing: at the time of this writing, over 341 million in #selfie, 435 million in #happy, 520 million in #photooftheday, 746 million in #instagood, and 1.2 billion in #love. It’s a positive place, this Instagramland. (By comparison only 870,000 in #unhappy and 24 million posts in #sad.) I found the likes and followers an alluring distraction (apparently for some the temptation is too great). I asked friends and colleagues about their Insta experiences. Many shared pics to connect with friends and family and/or to participate in threads related to interests and hobbies. Some commented on self-branders and corporate marketing strategies.

After a week it all started to look about the same (smiley, centered, saturated, squared), and I started to wonder about what I was not seeing. If so many people are using this platform (are you up to one billion, yet, Instagram?), then could it be used to bright to light places far removed from folks' like-radars? Places rarely sought out in real life, much less shared online for followers. Like landfills, for example. Waste of all kinds is universal. Humans have been burying (and sometimes building on top of) their trash for thousands of years. It’s one of the hallmarks of civilization. Why don’t we discuss it more, specifically about how it allows society to function…or in the emergence of Anthropocence, maybe eventually not so well? Is there an unsustainable cost to coveted #lifestyles?

Launched in honor of Earth Day, @americandumps posts satellite views of some 2,450 solid waste landfills in the United States. Included with each image is its state, latitude and longitude, whether it's open or closed, and the amount of waste in place* in tons. All data was sourced from Google Maps and the February 2018 Data Files from the Landfill Methane Outreach Program, a voluntary EPA program. LMOP “works cooperatively with industry stakeholders and waste officials to reduce or avoid methane emissions from landfills” by “[encouraging] the recovery and beneficial use of biogas generated from organic municipal solid waste. According to their database, the total amount of tonnage for sites in which that data is available, is currently over 11 billion tons of trash.

My project uses two scripts: one to retrieve the satellite image of each site and the other to upload it to Instagram. A bit about my process (all code linked below): 

  1. After retrieving the LMOP data, I added my own ID field, changed state abbreviations to full names, removed spaces from those full names to prep them for the hashtags, and duplicated the latitude and longitude columns, inserting “Data Missing” into the empty fields (also for Instagram caption display). Afterwards, I formatted the file as CSV and then converted it to JSON
  2. Next, I wrote get_images.py to iterate through each landfill record in the JSON file and call the Google API with the latitude and longitude coordinates of each site. 
  3. With that working, I downloaded all of the images at two different zoom levels, 15 and 16, to compare. Though I prefer the detail at zoom 16, sites are less likely to get cropped at 15. In addition, 15 provides greater context, showing how each landfill is situated within the landscape and its size compared to any surrounding community.** 
  4. Then, I built upload_images.py to retrieve each satellite image and post it to Instagram along with corresponding information. Hashtags were chosen because of their relevance and popularity: combined their total posts sum to over one billion. 

Of note, I came across this error early during upload testing:

Request return 400 error!
{u'status': u'fail', u'message': u"Uploaded image isn't in the right format"}

Turns out that Instagram refused photos straight out of Google Maps. Somehow it occurred to me to try opening and saving the images as new files using the Pillow library in get_images.py, and that did the trick.

*This report defines waste in place “as all waste that was landfilled in the thirty-year period before the inventory year, calculated as a function of population and per capita waste generation.” 
**Unfortunately I forgot to switch the zoom back to 15 until 157 images were posted.

Code on Github