By Serine Haidar Ahmad, from Local Conservation and Development with OCS in Lebanon
In my last blog post, I introduced the OCS research project I was working on with a diverse team at the Nature Conservation Center of AUB. After summarizing a couple of articles we read in order to design our water quality monitoring campaigns, I explained how we chose the different parameters we wanted the citizens to test for in order to asses water quality, how we selected their respective testing kits, and how we were going to call for volunteers after selecting a village/community in Lebanon.
We still had a long way to go! Assuming that we received an acceptable number of volunteers (which was never guaranteed), how were we going to engage them? How were we going to introduce our project, train them to test for water parameters, record and analyze the data? The task required a committed group of local supporters.
To our luck, one of the village’s municipality officers kindly agreed to be our contact person with the citizens. He made sure that all sampling sites were available before we went on field visits, and informed us if the village participants were otherwise busy. Our key on-the-ground contact helped to make our fieldwork and engagement with the community a smoother experience.
- First visit, first contact
Given that we did not know who would attend our first assembly before we actually visited the village, we planned for two worst case scenarios. First, we thought that the attendees/volunteers might only be interested in knowing if their water is polluted, and so would therefore not give their 100% commitment. To account for this possible scenario, we worked to create an engaging presentation that emphasized the unified role of the volunteers (no matter their age or sex) and why it was crucial for them to participate fully. Second, we did not have any idea about the attendees’ educational background. Hence, we made sure to avoid any scientific jargon that only a scientist would be familiar with, while still doing our best to explain the different concepts that were integral to the project. We also wanted to get an idea of the initial water quality perceptions that citizens had in order to benchmark it against their perceptions at the end of the project. For this reason, we designed a baseline questionnaire to administer to the village volunteers. We wondering how the process of collecting data as part of the project might impact on their own perceptions about the water quality.
- Teams and Instruction Manuals
We figured out that if we divided the volunteers equally across different groups, each testing for specific parameters, then they would be able to work in parallel, and faster. We thought that that keeping the testing as short as possible would help to keep motivation levels higher. Since the entire project was to be implemented in two campaigns, with each campaign having three field visits, volunteers rotated on all teams, and thus learned all tests.
Moreover, to make the task even simpler, we developed Arabic manuals and safety instructions with fun icons and images so that the volunteers could operate the instruments with hopefully less effort. The manuals were intended to help refresh the participants’ memory each time we conducted a field visit, knowing that these would probably not be referred to on a daily basis. It is interesting to note that this task of translation from English to Arabic was slightly more challenging for us because none of the research assistants had ever taken a scientific subjects in Arabic in high school or university. Therefore, we had to do extra linguistic research to be able to translate the scientific terms involved in these manuals, from the English to the Arabic language. We imagine that other citizen science projects similarly face challenges of translation and scientific jargon.
A pre-visit dummy session was necessary not only because some of us did not have prior experience in field work with the community and in the participatory approach, but also because we needed to assess if the scientific information we were presenting was clearly understandable. Another reason for this session was to evaluate the total time needed for all tests.
The dummy session was conducted on the 28th of October 2015. The staff was divided into groups to perform the different experiments in parallel, while the research assistants observed their performances and noted their questions; a proxy experience for being in the village.
After the dummy session, a couple of observations were made. First, a large space is needed for all volunteers to be facing each other and working at proximity because this will create a friendly atmosphere and fun in the room. Second, one of the dummy session participants suggested that we add the significance and acceptable drinking water standards of each parameter on its respective manual. This way, the volunteers would be able to keep track of them.
- Our trip to the village
We visited the village for the first time on the 31st of October, 2015. A group of citizens gathered in the dispensary (which was our meeting point). 85% of all attendees were females. We had not expected this distribution. We had initially wanted an equal distribution of men and women so that we could compare some behavioral performances such as patience, commitment or even precision. However, we quickly realized that most village men actually preferred working their daily jobs rather than participating in a volunteer scientific experiment because of the man’s status as the main providers in their families. This cultural expectation will need to be taken into consideration in future projects. We wondered if the project targeted another topic, not particularly scientific, and that related to their professions (such as engineering or farming), if the project would have attracted more males than females.
The session caught the community’s attention as we had hoped. Interested attendees were presented with a contact list on which they filled their names and phone numbers, and then signed a consent paper to participate in the project.
As a person who wants to become a strategy consultant, I learned that accounting for all components, details, aspects and scenarios of a project idea is crucial. I was able to practice this through the process that we developed for this project. However, as much as I learned that planning and following a process is important, on the other hand, I also realized that sometimes luck and the serendipity of human connections plays a key role as well. For example, stumbling upon a perfect contact person in the village (who was also the village mailman!) helped make our work so much easier, we never could have planned for that! Finally, I learned how to put myself in someone else’s shoes and become aware about the words I use, for even synonyms can reflect different meanings when applied in different contexts. How I translate an idea will differ according to whether I am faced with a client/businessman, a scientist, a housewife or a student.
In these two blog posts, I’ve detailed the process of how we strategized and executed our project plan. But now it is time for the implementation, observation, and analysis. There is a lot more to learn because the results go beyond discovering if the water is polluted or not but in fact the results will speak about the efficiency of our citizen science methods, and the behaviors of volunteers. I look forward to sharing our final learnings in the upcoming year and the possible opportunities for the adaptation of open science in Lebanon together with its sustainability and future application in our country.