Learning from the Arava Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research workshop

DSCN2472The Eilot region, near Eilat in Israel, is considered locally as a remote part of the Negev desert in Israel (it is about 3.5h drive from the population centres of Tel Aviv). It is an arid desert, with very sparse population – about 4000 people who live in communal settlements – mostly kibbutzim in an area of 2650 sq km (about the area of Luxembourg. This is a very challenging place for Western-style human habitation, in an area with a fragile desert ecosystem. The region and the Arava Institute at the centre of it, provided the stage for a workshop on Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research (LTSER) network with participants from the European network and supported by the eLTER H2020 project. LTER and LTSER are placed-based research activities that are led from the ecological perspective, with the latter integrating social aspects as an integral part of its inquiry and research framework.

The workshop run from 4-8 March on location, which allowed the immersion into the issues of the place, as well as exchanging experiences and views across the different “platforms” (the coordination bodies for the different sites that are used for LTSER research). While the people who are involved in the network were mostly familiar with one another, I was the external guest – invited to provide some training and insight into the way citizen science can be used in this type of research.

Its been over 21 years since I’ve been in this place – which I visited several times from my childhood to my late 20s. With a long experience of living in the UK, I felt like an outsider-insider – I can understand many of the cultural aspects while, at the same time, bringing my thinking and practice that is shaped through my work at UCL over this period. Also in disciplinary terms, I was outsider-insider – I’m interested in ecology, and with citizen science, linked to many people and activities in this area of research – however, I’m not an ecologist (leaving aside what exactly is my discipline). Because of that, I am aware of their framework, research questions, and issues (e.g. limited funding and marginalisation in science and research policy) which helped me in understanding the discussion and participating in it.

Visiting the area, discussing the social and ecological aspects, and progressing on a range of concepts, brought up several reflections that I’m outlining here:

DSCN2468First is the challenge of sustainability and sustainable development in such an area. It was quite telling that the head of the region, who is an active scientist, was pointing out that they want to have progressive development, and not exactly sustainable development. As we visited and travelled through the area, the challenges of achieving sustainability – with a wish for limited demographic growth and economic development that will ensure the high quality of life that the communities carve in a hostile environment can continue. This means attracting younger people who want to be part of the specific kibbutz community (the average age in the current settlement is quite high); bringing in commercial activities that match the characteristics of the area without altering them hugely – such as renewable energy activities (the area is already receiving 70% of energy from renewable energy during the day), agriculture (the area is a large producer of Medjool dates), and tourism (a new airport is about to be finished for flights from Europe); and all this while paying attention to the environmental and natural aspects of the area.

Second, the importance of cultural shaping of human-environment relationship in the area. The social organisation, the focus on agriculture (in addition to the dates there is an important milk dairy in ), and a strong belief in the power of technology to offer solutions to emerging problems stood out as major drivers of the way things happen. Each Kibbutz have a specific culture, which influences its social and operational characteristics so each is making collective decisions according to the specific organisation, and this has an environmental impact – for example, with the increase in heat due to climate change it must be that Yotveta, with a big herd of milk cows that are maintained in the desert conditions, is facing tougher challenges – and we heard from Ketura who made the decision not to maintain their herd. The impact here is an increasing use of water to cool the cows, not to mention that need to bring the feed from outside, I’d guess through Eilat port which is a short drive away. The agriculture is important in both the general ethos of the Kibbutz movement, but also significant economic income – and at the moment the dates are suitable in terms of the income that they provide. The way technological optimism is integrated into this vision is especially interesting and was pointed out by several participants. Several local presenters (some of them decision makers) mentioned that the region wants to be “silicon valley of renewable energy” and there is already rapid development of various solar energy schemes in different settlements, a research centre, and the cadaver of Better Place battery replacement station, but clearly nothing on the scale of say, Masdar Institute or anything similar in terms of the scale and R&D effort, so it is not clear what is standing behind this phrase. It seems more like a beacon of energy independence of some sort, and the provision of energy to the nearby city of Eilat as a source of income. The local presentation and discussions show a strong “frontier” conceptualisation of a personal and collective role, and this comes first in term of the relationship with the environment. The result is odd – organic palm dates which are planted next to fragile sand dunes, and with issues with waste management…

DSCN2431Third, it was not surprising to hear about citizen science activities in the area, including a recent winter bird survey that was initiated by several environmental bodies in the area, and which includes the use of Esri Survey123 forms to collect data in several specific sites, by providing the participants shelter and food during a weekend and which had excellent results. The area is perfect for citizen science activities – it got a highly educated population, large areas of nature reserves, very good mobile connectivity even off the roads, and environmental awareness (even if actions are contradictory). It is also a critical place for migrating bird, and there is a small visitors and research park near Eilat. At least from the point of view of LTSER, there’s a potential for a range of activities that can cater for local and for tourists.

Fourth, it was interesting to have discussions about citizen science that moved well beyond concerns over data quality (although I did have some of those too – as expected!). Amongst ecologists, the term citizen science is familiar, though not the full range of possibilities and issues. There were many questions about potential cross sites projects, recruitment and maintaining work with participants, creating new projects, and even using the results from citizen science in policy processes and gaining legitimacy.

Fifth, and something that I think worth exploring further – I couldn’t escape the thought that it will be very interesting to compare the kibbutz social and cultural organisation over time with open source and open knowledge projects. A concern that we heard through the visit is about the need for demographic growth but with very specific and testing conditions for anyone who wants to join – beyond the challenging environmental conditions. There is a fascinating mix of strong ideological motivations (settling the desert, leaving in communal settings, doing agriculture in the desert) with actions that are about comfort and quality of life, and as a result, concern about the ageing of the core population many of them from the founding generation. I can see parallels with open knowledge projects such as  OpenStreetMap, or citizen science projects, where you hear two contradictory statements at one – a wish to bring more people on, combined with a strong demand for commitment, and practical barriers to entry, which as a result create a stable core community which slowly age…

The workshop was summarised graphically by Aya Auerbach, in the following way.



Call for Papers in a special issue of Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation on citizen science

Mappers launch an air balloon in Mathare, Nairobi. Photo: Sohel Ahmed, DPU, UCL.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation is a new open access journal, addressing the interdisciplinary field that links different aspects of remote sensing (the use of different imaging and sensing technologies) and the field of ecology and conservation. It is publishing its papers in Open Access, so the papers are free to download and share.

With the encouragement of the journal editorial team, a group of editors (Helen Roy, Tom August, Linda See, Tanya Berger-Wolf & myself) set out a call for a special issue on citizen science. Citizen science is becoming part of the way research in ecology and conservation is now carried out, and there are plenty of examples of the use of remote sensing techniques – from the Do-It-Yourself balloon mapping that you see above, as part of research that explores how human, livestock, and food is linked to an informal settlement in Nairobi, to use of drones by non-professional researchers, to the use of satellite imagery.

One of my favourite citizen science project – PenguinWatch – is an example for remote sensing, as it uses camera traps imagery that is then uploaded to the Zooniverse platforms, and volunteers help in counting how many penguins appear in the image.

The call text is:

For centuries amateur naturalists have contributed to science; for example, by recording the distribution of species. However, in recent decades, advances in technology have revolutionised “citizen science” and far more people are involved in different ways than was historically the case. We invite high-quality contributions about citizen science to a special issue of Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation. The aim is to demonstrate the diversity of citizen science, in terms of approach and research themes, and the contributions of remote-sensing techniques. We are particularly interested in innovative research that identifies the intersection between remote sensing and citizen science for conservation, such as DIY balloon or kite mapping, the use of photo-sharing apps and the integration of satellite observations with ground truth by volunteers. Papers that reveal how citizen science and remote sensing can be used to monitor Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) are also welcome. The main objective is to describe the breadth and depth of engagement that is now possible using different approaches to citizen science. High-quality submissions for this special issue will be considered on a case-to-case basis for a full fee waiver, where authors are unable to pay the Article Processing Fees.
Submission deadline 15 July 2017.

Reading ‘Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction’ in place

9781615192434At the beginning of the year, I received an email from Mary Ellen Hannibal, asking for a clarification of the ‘extreme citizen science’ concept. Later on, Mary Ellen provided me with an early copy of ‘Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction‘, and asked if I will be willing to recommend it. I read the first part of the book before travelling to Sci Foo Camp, and was happy to provide a statement (I wouldn’t overstate the value of my endorsement when she received ones from Bill McKibben and Paul Ehrlich).

The part that I read captured my interest, and I finished reading it on the way to Sci Foo and shortly after it. I’ve enjoyed reading it, and at many points I stopped to think and absorb the rich information that Mary Ellen provided within it. At the beginning, I was expecting an account of the personal experience of doing citizen science and understanding its place in the world – much like Sharman Apt Russell ‘Diary of a Citizen Scientist’ (a wonderful book which I highly recommend!). However ‘Citizen Scientist’ is a very different type of book, with a much richer internal ‘ecology’. The book is weaving five themes – the impact of the mass extinction that we are experiencing around us; a very personal account of losing a parent; the history and development of ecological knowledge of coastal California; Joseph Campbell’s literary framework of the ‘hero’s journey’, and the way it can be linked to John Steinbeck and Ed Rickets work around Monterey; and the current practice of citizen science, especially around the Bay Area and coastal California. These themes are complex on their own, and Mary Ellen is doing a great job in exploring each one of them and bringing them into interaction with each other. As I went through the book, each of these was explained clearly from a well researched position, with the experiential aspects of citizen science – including the frustration and challenges – beautifully expressed. As you read through the book, you start to see how these themes come together. It most be said that most of these themes are worrying or raise the notion of loss. Against this background, citizen science plays the role of ‘hope’ at the corner of Pandora’s box – offering a way to connect to nature, nurture it and redevelop a sense of stewardship. A way to preserve the cultural practices of the Amah Mutsun tribe, nature, and a sense of connection to place.

Near Yosemite I felt very lucky that Mary Ellen got in touch and shared the book with me – it was just the right book for me to read at the time. After the Sci Foo Camp, I have stayed in central California for 4 weeks, touring from Mountain View in the Bay Area, to Ripon in Central Valley, to Oak View in Ojai Valley, near Ventura and Los Angeles. Reading the book while travelling through places that are linked to the book gave the visits deeper and richer context and meaning. Many of the encounters throughout journey were linked to the topics that I mentioned above – you don’t need to be any kind of hero to experience these! Some of these encounters include the following.
DSCN1924First was the fascinating session at Sci Foo Camp, in which Tony Barnosky discussed the issue of global tipping points (which are discussed in the book) and their wider implications, with few days later travelling towards Yosemite and experiencing the change in very large landscapes following fires and thinking ‘is this a local ecological tipping point, and the forest won’t come back?’. Then there was a visit to San Francisco Golden Gate Park, and passing by the California Academy of Sciences (Cal Academy, the San Francisco Natural History Museum), whose story is covered in the book. Another reminder of extinction came while travelling down the famous California State Route 1, which was eerily quite and empty of other cars on a weekend day, because of the Soberanes Fire that was devastating the forest nearby (and has not stopped). Or stopping by the Mission in Santa Barbara and thinking about the human and natural history of the coast, or just looking at the kelp on the beach and appreciating it much more…

I’ll try to write more about citizen science and its hopeful aspects later, but as for the book – even if you don’t travel through coastal California, I am happy with what I’ve said about it: ‘an informative, personal, emotional and fascinating account of a personal journey to ecological citizen science. It shows how our understanding of our environment and the need for urgent action to address the mass extinction that is happening in front of our eyes can be addressed through participatory science activities’.