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.



New paper: Using crowdsourced imagery to detect cultural ecosystem services: a case study in South Wales, UK

Map showing the numbers of contributors for all three photo-sharing platforms across all grid units of the study area. Numbers in parentheses in the legend indicate the number of grid units in the specified range.

Gianfranco Gliozzo, who is completing his Engineering Doctorate at the Extreme Citizen Science group, written up his first case study and published it in ‘Ecology and Society’.  Cited as
Gliozzo, G., N. Pettorelli, and M. Haklay. 2016. Using crowdsourced imagery to detect cultural ecosystem services: a case study in South Wales, UK. Ecology and Society 21(3):6. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08436-210306

The paper went through many iterations and took its time, but it is finally out. The abstract is provided below, and the paper, in open access, can be found here

The paper is exploring the role of crowdsourced imagery, and it building on some work that Vyron Antoniou done in 2010 about understanding the geographical aspects of multiple photo-sharing websites. Gianfranco is demonstrating how such information can be used to address the policy issue of assessing the cultural benefit of open and protected spaces, which is known as cultural ecosystem services.

Within ecological research and environmental management, there is currently a focus on demonstrating the links between human well-being and wildlife conservation. Within this framework, there is a clear interest in better understanding how and why people value certain places over others. We introduce a new method that measures cultural preferences by exploring the potential of multiple online georeferenced digital photograph collections. Using ecological and social considerations, our study contributes to the detection of places that provide cultural ecosystem services. The degree of appreciation of a specific place is derived from the number of people taking and sharing pictures of it. The sequence of decisions and actions taken to share a digital picture of a given place includes the effort to travel to the place, the willingness to take a picture, the decision to geolocate the picture, and the action of sharing it through the Internet. Hence, the social activity of sharing pictures leaves digital proxies of spatial preferences, with people sharing specific photos considering the depicted place not only “worth visiting” but also “worth sharing visually.” Using South Wales as a case study, we demonstrate how the proposed methodology can help identify key geographic features of high cultural value. These results highlight how the inclusion of geographical user-generated content, also known as volunteered geographic information, can be very effective in addressing some of the current priorities in conservation. Indeed, the detection of the most appreciated nonurban areas could be used for better prioritization, planning, and management.

British Ecological Society & Société Française d’Ecologie meeting, Lille (Day 2)

Notes from the second day of the BES/sfé annual meeting (see first day notes here)

Several talks in sessions that attracted my attention:

Daniel Richards (National University of Singapore) looked at cultural ecosystem services from social media sources. He mentioned previous study by  Casalegno at al 2013 study on social media and ecosystem services . In Singapore they carry out a study for the few green spaces that are used for leisure and nature reserves – the rest of the place is famously highly urbanised. There are patches of coastal habitat that are important locally. The analysis looked at Flickr photos to reveal interest. There are 4 study sites, with 760 photos that were returned and of them 683 related to coastal habitat. They use classification of content, with 8 people analysing the photos. Analysis of Flickr showed different aspects – landscape in one site, and wildlife in another site. In one site there are research photos due to the way it is used locally. Looking closely to one coastal site, focal points in the route where people stopped  to take a picture stood out, and landscape photos. All the photos follow the boardwalk in the area of Changi which is the only route. Simulation showed that after 70 photos they can get a good indication of the nature of the place, no need to look through all the images.

Barbara Smith explored the role of indigenous and local knowledge as part of a multiple evidence base for pollinator conservation. The context is India in agricultural area – looking at places where there is more extensive agriculture and less. The project aim is to record pollinators and then explore the impact of landscape and crop productivity . In this study, the starting point was the belief that traditional knowledge has a lot of value, and it is a knowledge that can be integrated with scientific information.  She mentioned Tengo et al 2013 discussion paper in IPBES on the value of local knowledge, and also Sutherland et al 2014 paper in Oryx about the need to integrate indigenous knowledge in ecological assessment. The aim to collate knowledge of trends, they created a local peer-review process to validate local knowledge. Understanding  factual data collection and separate it from inferences which are sometime wrong. They carry out small group discussions, in which they involved 5-7 farmers, in each of the 3 study area they had 3 groups. They asked questions that are evidence gathering (which crop you grow?) and also verification (how do you know?) they also ask opinion scoping (perceptions ) and then ‘why did you observed the change?’. In the discussions with the farmers they structured in around questions that can be explored together. After the first session, the created declarations – so ‘yields have fallen by 25%’ or crop yield declined because of the poor soil’ the statements were accepted or rejected through discussion with the farmers – local peer-review. Not all farmers can identify pollinators, and as the size goes down, there is less identification and also confusion about pests and pollinators. The farmers identified critical pollinators in their area and also suggestions on why the decline happen.

In the workshop on ‘Ecosystem assessments – concepts, tools and governance‘ there was various discussion on tools that are used for such purposes, but it became clear to me that GIS is playing a major role, and that many of the fundamental discussions in GIScience around the different types of modelling – from overlaying to process oriented modelling – can play a critical role in making sense of the way maps and GIS outputs travel through the decision making. It can be an interesting area to critically analysed – To what degree the theoretical and philosophical aspects of the modelling are taken into account in policy processes? The discussion in the workshop moved to issues of scientific uncertainty and communication with policy makers. The role of researchers in the process and the way they discuss uncertainty.

In the computational ecology session, Yoseph Araya presented a talk that was about the use of citizen science data, but instead he shared his experience and provide an interesting introduction to a researcher perspective on citizen science. He looked at the data that is coming from citizen science and the problem of getting good data. Citizen Science gaining attention – e.g. Ash die-back and other environmental issues are leading to attention. Citizens are bridging science, governance and participation. Citizen Science is needed for data at temporal, spatial and social scales and we should not forget that it is also about social capital, and of course fun and enjoyment. There is an increase in citizen science awareness in the literature. He is building on experience from many projects that he participated in include Evolution Megalab, world water monitoring day, floodplain meadows partnership, iSpot and OPAL, and CREW – Custodians of Rare and Endangered Windflowers (that’s a seriously impressive set of projects!). There are plenty of challenges – recruitment, motivation; costs and who pays; consideration of who run it; data validation and analysis and others. Data issues include data accuracy, completeness, reliability, precision and currency. He identified sources of errors – personnel, technical and statistical. The personal – skills, fitness and mistakes and others. Potential solutions – training with fully employed personnel,  then also monitor individual and also run an online quiz. Technically, there is the option of designing protocols and statistically, it is possible to use recounts (15%), protocols that allow ‘no data’ and other methods.

The poster session included a poster from Valentine Seymour, about her work linking wellbeing and green volunteering