Santa Monica is turning to the virtual world to help residents understand a very real problem: climate change.

City Hall will install a pair of digital viewfinders on the Santa Monica Pier this month that will project images of sea level rise and storm surge onto the Santa Monica Landscape. The devices, known as Owls because they resemble the popular bird’s face, will also gather data from users to help officials with planning decisions.

The Owl looks similar to traditional viewfinder/binoculars that you’d find in a public space. However, when users look through the device, they’re seeing a digital, 360-degree image of the area. By rotating the device, users can look up, down or side to side to explore the image.

By using the controls on the side, users can manipulate that image to see the impact of rising tides, storm surges, potential solutions being considered by the City or to interact with a survey. The device also contains a microphone to record verbal answers that will be sent to City Hall.

According to a press release issued by the city, by 2050, sea level rise in Southern California could increase by 5-24 inches and by 17-66 inches by 2100. As the sea level increases, the water line will move up the beach, permanently eroding the beach. While the day to day impact may be mild, a further inland tide line can mean more impacts from major coastal storms, according to research being conducted by the City’s project partners, USC Sea Grant and the US Geological Services.

“Sea level rise is a slow moving crisis that’s hard to see, and harder to get people energized around, but this technology will help bring it home in a very tangible way,” said Dean Kubani, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Santa Monica in the release. “Seeing firsthand how the change will impact us will be a very powerful experience for all of our beach lovers.”

Nate Kauffman, project director for Owl, said the Owl’s interface has a powerful effect on users.

“It’s very visceral experience when they look through the Owl and recognize they are in the same space but something is different, something has been added or subtracted,” he said. “It’s a much more effective way of capturing those folks in that space.”

Owls are equipped with controls that will let users take a survey and a microphone to record verbal feedback. Kauffman said the device democratizes the planning process by allowing anyone to participate on their own time and in the actual space being discussed.

“Planners find this a very useful tool to be able to put into the environment and let it gather data for you instead of doing a good old fashioned public planning meeting,” he said.

Kauffman said that over the months of installation, the device will be able to record thousands of answers and provide a far larger data set than could be gathered from traditional meetings.

Signage will accompany the Owls to explain what they do and why the survey is important.

The installation has been postponed due to a last-minute software malfunction announced by the manufacturer, Owlized, Inc.  The unanticipated software problem will set the Owl’s launch back by up to two months, according to Owlized. The planned Sept. 19 inaugural event has also been postponed.

Elizabeth Bar-El, City of Santa Monica Senior Planner, is the project manager for the update of Santa Monica’s Local Coastal Program, which will incorporate future sea level rise into coastal zoning

She said the device has been used in some places to show what a specific project would look like once complete but Santa Monica will use it to educate residents on the impact of climate change.

“What we’re going to use this for is to show what the science is saying on the Santa Monica Beach about sea level rise,” she said.

While the devices will be open to anyone, the City specifically chose to install them in September to maximize the percentage of local respondents.

“Hopefully, there’s a lot of people, we really want local people come out,” she said. “We planned to have it out and starting it in early September because we didn’t want it to be part of the summer rush.”

For additional information about the Owl and the City’s efforts to prepare and adapt to sea level rise, visit



Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...