Kate Sherren

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Category: Methods (page 1 of 10)

Cornell Energy Incubator

Dylan Bugden chairs our discussion of research best practice.

Dylan Bugden chairs our discussion of research best practice.

Excellent first day here at the ‘Energy Incubator’ invited meeting here at Cornell, sponsored by Rich Stedman‘s social science fellowship at the Atkinson Centre for a Sustainable Future. Mostly Americans, save for Tom Beckley and Louise Comeau (UNB) and I, this group is gender- and experience-balanced and engaged in research across a range of energy/society issues: landscape, justice, gender, ‘booms’, impacts on other industries (ag), etc.

Getting started at the Energy Incubator.

Getting started at the Energy Incubator.

We started with short bursts on the more or less ‘half-baked’ ideas people pitched up before we came–at the half-baked end I talked about my ideas for an enpathy engine (that is, energy empathy) to combat climax thinking. We then brainstormed best practice for energy impacts research and broke into groups for some more focused discussions, which is what we’ll spend today doing. We then had a chance to explore the stunning Ithaca campus on the way to dinner.

The small hydro facility on the Cornell campus.

The small hydro facility on the Cornell campus.

Our meeting today was held in a beautiful centre at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but the gracious campus buildings are also nestled beside stunning gorges that tumble down to the townsite. There is even a small hydroelectricity dam that provides power to the campus (probably a project of the Engineering school)? Sign me up, Cornell. 

Ithaca is Gorges!

Ithaca is Gorges!

Jeffrey Jacquet tours us around Cornell's gorges.

Jeffrey Jacquet tours us around Cornell’s gorges.

What is to be done (with Facebook)?

I’m not on Facebook. Never have been. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Certainly not SnapChat or any of those newfangled things. But as a social scientist I’ve increasingly found useful the data that other people make public in such settings. Some reasons are pragmatic. The public has become exhausted by surveys, and are too busy to participate in interviews and workshops, at the same time that environmentally minded graduate students have become increasingly less likely to have drivers’ licenses and thus less able to head out on field work to run them. Human ethics research boards are generally unconcerned with data that people voluntarily place in the public domain, allowing quick pilot work using social media across a range of topics and publics. If you take user agreements and settings literally and assume that those data have been volunteered, it is quite easy to be ethical by aggregation and citation, like you would any source. Finally, I believe there is very real understanding to be gained by using such data as proxies to understand human values, preferences, behaviours, and yearnings. My qualitative methods course finished up this week with presentations, and it took my breath away what insight the students gained over a month on topics as diverse as sexually transmitted disease infection, sustainable food conceptualizations, and human disturbance of migratory shorebirds thanks to posts on Reddit and Instagram.

So then comes the recent horrifying news over Facebook and its business model: unscrupulously selling access to large volumes of personal data to even less scrupulous companies like Cambridge Analytica. So what do I do now, besides a quick (and perhaps smug) wipe of the brow with relief that I did not aid in either Trump or Brexit? The furor suggests that many people, maybe even some of the same ones who so clearly cherish unknown followers, are not aware their data is available to people like me.  They may not see my intentions differently than the infamous personality test that fed Cambridge Analytica, for instance if I advertise a scholarly survey via Facebook to target a very specific group not otherwise easy to capture. Moreover, how implicated might I feel if I paid them for that access, knowing now what kind of algorithms are driving that cleverness? Perhaps the lesson for researchers is the same as the lessons for social media users more generally; a somewhat Methodist moral that if something is effortless, there may be something wrong with it. Yet I will mourn the loss of access to social riches that will inevitably follow this news.

End of an era

Me with Simon Greenland-Smith at the Dalhousie University Club Pub.

Me with Simon Greenland-Smith at the Dalhousie University Club Pub.

Back in 2011 when I was a new professor at Dalhousie, Simon Greenland-Smith–then an Environmental Science Honours student–came to talk to me about his farmer survey about riparian buffers. John Brazner, provincial wetland specialist and Simon’s Honours supervisor, introduced us. Thank goodness he did.

Yesterday, Simon had his last day at SRES, finishing two years as the Wood Turtle Strides farmer stewardship program manager, working for the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture but sitting two doors down in SRES. In between, Simon worked in my lab as an undergraduate research intern, transcribing photo-elicitation interviews I did with farmers in Cumberland County; carried out a novel Masters of Environmental Studies thesis using wetland walkabout interviews with farmers in the Annapolis Valley to show how ecosystem services valuations miss many social values; became my go-to survey administrator and statistician for a range of research projects (e.g. dams of all things); and, picked up where Kate Goodale left off with our farmer extension website BioLOG, adding educational materials and a range of videos to the mix. He has been a great citizen inside SRES and out, including his leadership in DivestDal.

I’m equal parts sad and proud to see him head off Monday to work on marine conservation targets as National Campaign Manager of the SeaBlue Initiative (bringing together the Ecology Action Centre, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David Suzuki Foundation and West Coast Environmental Law). While we plan to keep collaborating, I wish him well in the new adventure, and hope to welcome him back to Halifax sooner than later.

SSHRC team meetings all week

John Parkins, Carolyn Mann and Wes Tourangeau celebrate #Dal200 this week

John Parkins, Carolyn Mann and Wes Tourangeau celebrate #Dal200 this week in the Dalhousie ‘quad’

A real pleasure to have collaborators in town this week for meetings on several SSHRC-funded projects. Wednesday and Thursday we’ve been talking about what’s been achieved in the HM/sustainable grazing project 2.5 years in, and what we’ll do from here on in. John Parkins, co-applicant on that grant, has come from the University of Alberta, and Carolyn Mann, RA, from Ottawa. We’ve had collaborators Marney Isaac and Ed Bork skype in from Toronto and Edmonton, respectively. The whiteboard is no longer white, but laden with scrawled insight. Tomorrow we switch gears and talk energy.

Rangeland social science meeting

Lynn Huntsinger and Tracy Hruska at a cafe in Reno, the biggest little city in the world

Lynn Huntsinger and Tracy Hruska at a cafe in Reno, the biggest little city in the world

I am in Sparks, Nevada, at an invited meeting of rangeland social scientists (RSS) organized by Hailey Wilmer and Mark Brunson before the Society for Range Management meeting. I arrived in San Francisco late Friday to visit with Berkeley professor Lynn Huntsinger and her UNevada Geography professor husband Paul Starrs. The view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the harbour was stunning as the sun set, and Paul’s posole a delight. The next morning Lynn and I transected California’s many landscapes and production systems up across the snowy Sierra Nevada (and the notorious Donner Pass), with two of her Berkeley lab PhD students, Tracy Hruska and Sheila Barry.

DRI research professor Tamara Wall prepares to chair us in our RSS unconference

DRI research professor Tamara Wall prepares to chair us in our RSS unconference

Both Sheila and Tracy have led papers or chapters I really like, so it was the beginning of a day full of happy name recognition. Awaiting us at the lovely Desert Research Institute where the RSS meeting was being held: thirty more people  whose work I have enjoyed and cited since my Australian post-doc. Simply meeting them has made the trip worthwhile, and hearing kind words of appreciation in turn a bonus, particularly for my new commentary on standalone social science in rangelands. The meeting is following an un-conference format, which is new to me, but allowed for a very egalitarian agenda design, and productive discussions in small groups and together. I joined a group on community-building and integration, where those from a mix of career stages discussed the importance of an attractive career script for RSS practitioners, and how this nascent community could help. We’ll pick up some of the threads later today for day two of the un-meeting.

 

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