Do writeshops work…?

By Jon Lawn

Do writeshops work…?

…this was my first thought when the idea was floated! Do we really need to take people away to get them to concentrate on their work? I soon found out we do!

Despite my initial scepticism, the DECCMA Northern Team Writeshop has been a great success.  We have gathered colleagues from around the country (and some from further afield), who would’t usually have the time to sit together for three days. Situated in a picturesque village in the New Forest, we are surrounded by delightful English countryside and autumnal colours. Stick your head outdoors and you hear birdsong and smell the rustic smell of an open fire.  Look around and you see ponies, cattle and birds. Peace at last!

The silence in our meeting room is unnerving.  I am so used to DECCMA meetings being full of talk, presentations, lively discussion and debate – this eerie quiet reminds me of an exam hall.  All I hear hour after hour is the gentle ‘tap tap’ of fingers on keyboards and occasional hushed whispers of collaborators discussing how many words they’ve written and the order of paragraphs. ‘Are they really working’ I think…?

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Regular gatherings and updates from the team prove my continued scepticism to be unfounded.  Thousands upon thousands of words have been written, entire papers have gone through multiple reviews with ‘track changes’ an essential companion.  Thoughts have changed and evolved, analyses have developed and clarity has been sought.  The amount and speed of progress is amazing.  Papers have gone from being a mere idea and structure to almost complete.

We punctuate our writing sessions with forays into the damp countryside – some fresh air to revive frazzled brains and to invigorate the soul.  Topics of conversation enlighten each other on progress and share trains of thought – with valuable contributions and insightful comments received in return. Even the drizzle doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm for ploughing on, both with the walks, and with the writing.

I will admit to be unnerved about the lack of agenda items going into this meeting.  With the majority of the sessions titled ‘Writing Session’ with the instruction ‘Self-Organise’ next to it – my usual planning and control of meetings is removed. There are no presentations to prepare and no minutes to write! When asked in our introductory session about my goals for the meeting, my reply is simply “to make sure you guys write stuff!”

The dedicated time given to writing is key. Providing an environment where academics and researchers aren’t disturbed by the busyness and demands of an office environment is proving efficient.  Email is not banned (although I contemplated withholding the WiFi password!) – but self-control and discipline is displayed, and even encouraged, by the participants. They have grasped and bought into the ethos of the writeshop, and in many cases appear to crave the quiet, uninterrupted time to put their head down and focus solely on one area of analysis.

So what’s the key to an effective writeshop?

Planning in advance – there is no point having people sitting around for three days with nothing to write!  Participants must come with goals in mind, and a clean schedule to devote time and effort to the cause.  We asked the team to complete templates, stating the papers they would be working on and with whom they needed to collaborate – both on writing and reviewing.  This planning forced the team to focus in advance, and not just turn up with no idea what was going on.

Variability is also important.  I found you should not overestimate the concentration span of a person – to get someone to focus on one activity for an entire day is unrealistic! More than an hour is pushing it for the average person.  Hence we built in times where we went for walks, ate lunch together in a different location and generally made purposeful attempts to switch our focus to different tasks to provide intervals and a change of pace.

Within the variability we also provided flexibility. I was amazed on Day 1 that these grown-ups kept asking me for permission. ‘Can I work on this task Jon?’, ‘Can I not go for the walk now as I’m in the zone Jon?’, ‘Jon, can I pop out and get a coffee/go for a run/phone home?’. It was obvious I was the keeper of the meeting!  But, in all reality, we aimed to provide an environment that was best for people to work, and this would be different for different individuals.  My response to (virtually) every request was ‘sure, whatever works best for you’.

We have seen a real step change in the amount of writing achieved during these three days. Plans have already been mooted to continue the momentum next year.

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Senior Bangladeshi policy maker visits University of Southampton

By Alexander Chapman, University of Southampton

Professor Shamsul Alam, Senior Secretary of the General Economics Division (GED), Government of Bangladesh visited the University of Southampton (24-25 August 2017) to continue our collaboration on several large delta-focused projects.

Prof Alam visit

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The severe flooding ongoing in Northern Bangladesh, which has destroyed an estimated 640,500 homes, highlights the threat the country faces from a wetter, more extreme, future climate. As head of GED Prof. Alam oversees the development strategy in Bangladesh, including the design of over 70 large projects associated with the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, the centrepiece of the country’s response to climate change.

In his meeting with Southampton’s Vice Chancellor & President, Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, Prof Alam emphasised the importance of designing interventions which give consideration to the complexities of the social-ecological system of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta (GBM). In the low-lying GBM, where interactions with upstream developments, flooding and storm surges, and rural livelihoods are constantly changing actions can often have detrimental effects if not systemically analysed. Through three ongoing multi-million pound research projects the University of Southampton and its partner The Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) aim to provide integrated systems modelling support to the government. Our work will help stakeholders, drawn from a cross section of society, understand the impacts of future policy trajectories.

On day one of the visit Prof Robert Nicholls, Principle Investigator of the ESPA Deltas project, reported on our progress evaluating two of GED’s key coastal zone projects. The team are currently calibrating the ESPA Deltas model, ΔDIEM, ready to simulate development of large-scale coastal embankments and natural buffers in the Southwest region. In March 2018 ESPA Deltas will report on the poverty, livelihood, and ecosystem service implications of various different options being looked at in the Delta Plan. Looking forward, the DECCMA project, which has also placed great emphasis on stakeholder engagement, hopes to provide insight into different migration and adaptation policy trade-offs in the coastal region. Prof Alam is Chair of the Bangladesh National Advisory Expert Group within the DECCMA project – a group of key stakeholders that provides high level direction to the project.

On day two we discussed the projects’ legacies. In October Southampton will host a further representative from GED, as well as two researchers from BUET, as we aim to build in-country capacity to run and best utilise ΔDIEM and other integrated models for policy evaluation. Both building knowledge sharing and capacity building into ongoing projects, and ensuring a pipeline of technical and research projects into the future are important objectives for GED, who have strong ambitions for poverty reduction and livelihood improvement in Bangladesh. The team spent a productive afternoon with Ken de Souza of DFID discussing how to build legacy for the current work which, it is hoped, is only a test case to demonstrate what is possible with collaboration on integrated systems research projects.

It was a pleasure to welcome Prof. Alam to Southampton, his passion for achieving ambitious poverty reduction goals in such a challenging context, and his openness to challenging conventional approaches to policy were impressive. We look forward to working together further and playing our part in building in-country capacity which will hopefully serve Bangladesh long beyond the lifetime of our research there (which, with a bit of funding luck, still has a good few years left in it!).

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“Working as a Project Manager makes me feel like The Dark Knight who is a silent guardian and a watchful protector” – on simplifying research messages about climate change, adaptation and migration in deltas

By Sumana Banerjee, Jadavpur University

One of CARIAA’s research objectives is to “build new capacities by strengthening expertise among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners”. Ensuring that our research informs policy and practice is thus a critical component of what we do. Communicating their findings to audiences beyond their peers is often a novel idea for academics and here Sumana Banerjee, DECCMA’s project manager for India,  reflects on some of her experiences in trying to support this. 

Speaking from my experience of working closely with researchers, I realised that they find it difficult to translate research concerns or findings to outputs which can be easily read by stakeholders. They are keener to write for an academic journal than for the project’s blog. I feel this has to do with the way researchers are trained, where skill to write dissertations, thesis, and academic papers is stressed upon. Internet has changed our lives and it often made me wonder if schools could teach on how to communicate to different audiences: blog-writing as well as essay writing, email writing alongside letter writing, and micro-blogging for Twitter in addition to precis writing. This would not only make lessons more exciting but also help the students in their professional lives later on.

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Working in the capacity of a Project Manager makes me feel like The Dark Knight who is a silent guardian and a watchful protector. Just like a good guardian, I find myself “guarding” my research team from questions such as “what is this supposed to mean?”, “what do you aim to do with you research” by answering them myself simply and without confusing jargon.

I often write blog posts for the project website based on the researchers’ experiences at training workshops or their findings. Hailing from a non-science background, I initially found it difficult to talk about work with my team and I could not see myself writing about their scientific findings and experiences.

The one thing that I had to do was ask questions to learn more and ensure I understood the research findings myself. My colleagues were patient and kind enough to answer my questions or discuss my interpretations.

Soon I was able to simplify jargon into understandable phrases – “5m contoured areas” became “areas within 5m of height from mean sea level”; “negative net migration” became “more people leaving than entering (In-migration< Out-migration)”.

It is DECCMA’s policy for researchers to write a blog post after engaging in fieldwork, or attending a conference or workshop.  When I would request researchers to submit a blog post it would often be met with displeasure, or the output would be a highly technical one, fit to be published in an academic journal.

I used to edit the articles they submitted by asking questions (again!) and checking if I interpreted the technical bits correctly. Then I planned to make my life a tad easier by sharing a questionnaire with them which would coax them to provide brief and simple answers. With specified word limits and seeking answers in only certain areas which would be relatable by all, this simplified the writing process for the researchers and me. They did not have to think and write from scratch to suit a blog audience and I did not have to get stuck at every second sentence and ask questions to produce a simple write up.

Going by Plato’s concept of Art being twice removed from reality, I am often concerned while simplifying write-ups if I have over-simplified and distorted the message or not communicated it accessibly for a non-expert. As a cross-checking process I use a method which my dad used to employ on me before my exams, which I hated back then but value so much now.

My dad used to come around and ask me if I am all set for the exams and start chatting with me. I expected him to ask me questions to test my preparedness but he never asked questions and instead asked me to “teach” him what I learnt. Every time I tried sharing a well-memorised definition, he would discourage me and ask me to explain it to him as he found the definitions too difficult. I used to get annoyed that, in spite of knowing the concepts, he pretended not to know anything and wasted my time before an exam!

I feel so grateful to him for encouraging me to explain things in my own words  with examples and funny imaginary stories. Now, I use this method after writing a simplified piece. I share what I have understood and written in the form of a short narrative with the researchers and if they feel I have captured what they tried telling, half my job is done. Their approval is a nod that I have not distorted the message.

The next thing that I do is give the article a good read – as a non-expert if I feel comfortable reading the article and understanding the message, I feel convinced that a stakeholder would do too. Working in a research team, I have been somewhat inducted into their world of jargon and at times I fear (yes, it is fear!) that unknowingly I would use or retain some of the jargon and it would not strike me as “unrelatable”! As a double check against this, I narrate a gist of it to my husband who is in advertising and quite removed from research or academia. If he understands what I say, I feel happy that it will be an easy read.

This communication of research messages has been a learn-as-you-go experience for me and I find this interesting. This learning would not have been possible without the patience of the people who endured my questions and narrations. My quest to understand and simplify research messages involves informal chats and asking a lot of questions. I often felt hesitant to ask questions that I might be bothering but I decided to stick to what a wise person once told me –

“It is better to ask questions and do the right things than not ask questions and do the wrong things.”

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DECCMA 7th Consortium Meeting held in Ghana

By Prosper Adiku and Gertrude Domfeh

The DEltas, vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA) project held its 7th Consortium meeting in Ghana on Sunday July 2, 2017 at The Royal Senchi Hotel. DECCMA is a research consortium of five institutions from Africa, Asia and Europe conducting a comparative research on climate related vulnerabilities in four major deltas namely the Mahanadi and Indian Bengal Deltas (India), the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta (Bangladesh) and the Volta Delta (Ghana) and is jointly funded by International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Launched in May 2014, the DECCMA research is being undertaken in nine districts within the Volta delta in Ghana (South Tongu, Ada East, North Tongu, Keta Municipal, Ada West, Ketu South, Central Tongu, Ketu North and Ningo Prampram) under the leadership of the Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS) of the University of Ghana, Legon.

Kwasi and MESTI

(Image: Honourable Professor Kwabena Boateng, Minister for Environment, Science Technology and Innovation & Prof Kwasi Appeaning Addo)

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Special guests at the opening of the four-day meeting included the Minister for Environment, Science Technology and Innovation (MESTI), Honourable Professor Kwabena Boateng, the Canadian High Commissioner to Ghana, H. E. High Commissioner Heather Cameron and the members and Chair of the National Experts Advisory Group (NEAG) of DECCMA Ghana, Hon. Clement Kofi Humado .

In his welcome statement, the Principal Investigator of the Ghana project team and Director of RIPS, Professor Samuel Nii Ardey Codjoe indicated that the Institute has been involved in a number of headline research activities, and has contributed to national activities including the Nationally Determined Contributions (iNDCs) now the Ghana Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Professor Kwasi Appeaning Addo, the head of Department of the Marine and Fisheries Sciences and the Co-PI of DECCMA Ghana elaborated on the role of the project in managing adaptation issues in the country and stressed the need for collaborative efforts in tackling the myriad of challenges in the delta areas.
The Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation in addressing participants, reiterated government’s commitment to ensuring the mainstreaming of climate change issues as part of Ghana’s holistic development agenda. He enumerated several government interventions and outlined some plans to avert the recurrent flooding and erosion issues in the delta areas. He noted specifically the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) as one of the key documents that stipulates government’s direction in relation to climate change issues. He further stressed the role of research, science and technology in dealing with various environmental challenges and urged the DECCMA team on a good job well done while indicating his Ministry’s preparedness to collaborate with and support innovative ideas from the activities of the DECCMA project.

H. E. Heather Cameron (middle) with Hon. Prof. Frimpong Boateng (L) and Prof. Samuel Nii Ardey Codjoe (R) during the opening ceremony (Courtesy: Canadian High Commission)
The Canadian High Commissioner on her part expressed her excitement at being part of the DECCMA Consortium in discussing migration and climate change issues and was happy that the IDRC, DFID, the University of Ghana and others from Africa and Asia are collaborating to consider the shared challenges of communities living in delta regions. She was of the view that “cross-border research networks help to advance shared research priorities, and to also bring ideas, expertise and collaborations to advancing understanding at local levels”. Noting that migration and climate change will disproportionately affect women and girls, she was happy that the research consortium has already produced a number of papers on specific gender issues. She remains hopeful that the ultimate agenda-setting of the research consortium will reflect gender issues in similar fashion by helping give women and girls (in the delta regions) the tools and opportunities to be powerful agents of change in creating more resilient communities. She noted that the UK will continue to reinforce investments and strengthen research and innovation as part of its new international assistance policy operations in recognition of the important role of research and innovation in the development process so as to help bring research into policy and practice, and to scale-up innovative solutions that demonstrate development results.
There was also poster presentations highlighting some of the research outputs of the consortium across the various participating countries.

DECCMA7th Group

(Image: DECCMA Consortium and Honoured guests)

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