INTERACT: Future steps forward

INTERACT’s funding of our proof-of-concept methodology project gave us the opportunity to collect several batches of linked quantitative and qualitative data, which we will analyse during the rest of the summer.  This will allow us to refine our conceptual model of this integrated mapping process and explore how it could be applied an environmental planning setting.

Over the next months, we will be computing our analyses, writing up our results and preparing several research council funding applications in order to carry our research forward. Given that our INTERACT proof of concept work has already begun bearing fruit – in terms of interest from local populations, the national press and several senior interdisciplinary scholars – our aim is to turn this into a longer pilot project that would enable us to take this methodology into several other national park spaces in the Arctic. Along with those funding initiatives, we also aim to apply for further INTERACT funding to be able to link up with an Arctic research station near the White Sea, allowing us to take our participatory mapping walks into the Russian Arctic. There are several sites in Russia’s northern wilds that we are interested in testing out our methodology in, enabling us to access a different population with different histories and relationships to outdoor spaces. There are bound to be challenges – linguistic, cultural, logistical – but we are convinced that the Russian Arctic would be a useful and relevant field site for our work, in addition to being a fascinating place to carry out research.

A bit of background on WILDSENS

In order for states, municipalities, communities and individuals to be able to effectively manage dynamic, wild landscapes in a changing world, we need to rethink our policies of conservation and development at many different levels. In particular, one of the greatest challenges to effective management has been the task of effectively and inclusively incorporating the diverse – and at times conflicting – values and needs of land users in local communities. Models of management known as “multi-criterion” are good at integrating empirical ecological, economic and agricultural data. Meanwhile, participatory research methods have gained popularity because they allow for accessing the attitudes and ecological knowledge of local community members. But few initiatives seek to integrate the two – in part because quantitative researchers (and their data) rarely sit alongside one another, and in part because it’s just plain difficult.

What we have sought to do in our INTERACT-funded research is to develop a new comprehensive way to do participatory mapping that succeeds not just in capturing stakeholders’ perceptions of, knowledge about and attitudes towards wild landscapes, but in enabling integration of that information with other existing forms of data relevant to land mapping. Our hope is that coming up with new research methods to this end will offer new and more comprehensive insights into the impact of environmental change on local communities. By better capturing and using local knowledge, we can help support sustainable strategies for managing dynamic wild landscapes in the future, around the planet.

So-called walking methods (or mobile methods) has been gaining in popularity in recent years, particularly among scholars who want to better understand people’s experience of and relationship with landscapes. Topics such as cultural land values are rich with qualitative complexity and cannot easily be measured, assessed or understood through surveys or quantitative data points. These kinds of mobile methods can inform landscape conservation efforts, particularly for the management of protected areas. What we have proposed – combining mixed methods approaches that map spatial data and qualitative information onto how humans understand place – can advance understanding of the complex interactions between society, environment and place in modern conservation approaches. Our main initiatives are twofold: 1) to integrate acoustic methods that link subjective, experiential human data with empirical ecological data; and 2) to introduce into participatory mapping work a comprehensive participatory ethnographic component that brings stakeholders into the research process as knowledge co-creators (as opposed to merely subjects or interviewees). This way, instead of being uni-directional, information is actually exchanged between researcher and researchee.

Our INTERACT project is intended to develop and apply a new methodology for work on multi-sensory participatory mapping that integrates various human knowledge of and attitudes towards dynamic wild landscapes. Most work in environmental cartography typically relies on tools from human and physical geography, such as PPGIS. We wanted to find a way to integrate quantitative participatory mapping methods with qualitative ecological, anthropological and phenomenological data. Our hope is that we could synthesise such diverse data so as to develop a replicable, multidisciplinary framework for capturing a full range of information relevant to creating maps of the natural world. While most maps these days are created top-down with, for example, satellite information and multiple quantitative data points, few maps pay any substantive attention to how the users of maps (e.g. humans) actually perceive, feel about or experience the world. We all believe that such information is important and relevant for cartographic scholarship that is comprehensive, inclusive and ethical. Our hope is that doing such multi-sensory research and coming up with innovative research methods that cut across disciplines and types of data will help with public and private management of wild spaces – and species.

What’s next for us on the INTERACT project? Have a read in our next blog post…

Making maps with people

Where do maps of the wild come from? How are they made? Who gets to decide what goes into them? And when maps are used by policy makers and other people in government to decide on whether, say, a wind farm should go here, or a species should be reintroduced there, or a national park centre should be situated over there, do these maps tell the whole story? Do they make it clear what most people who use these spaces think about the area and what or how they feel about particular wild spaces?

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Our research project (“Sensing Wild Spaces: Integrated Participatory Mapping for Understanding Community Relationships to Dynamic Mountain Landscapes” – or WILDSENS if you’re a fan of acronyms) is based on the simple idea that maps used in environmental decision making can be better and more representative if they could take into consideration the ideas, perceptions and emotions of the actors who use them, namely: people. Traditionally maps of landscape such as those of wilderness are made almost exclusively based on remote sensed satellite data and expert opinion. Including people in this mapping process and other higher resolution local in situ data (human perception and ecoacoustics) gives these maps a richer picture of these complex and dynamic landscapes.

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We are a group of three researchers from different disciplines (geography, anthropology and acoustic ecology) and different backgrounds (English, Scottish and American) who came together around a shared interest to think about (and perhaps do something about) the ways that maps are used to understand and make wild spaces. And our hope is that we might come up with some new methods to improve future research on and implementation of conservation processes and moves to protect the planet’s ecological systems.

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In our next blog post, we’ll write a bit about our trip to our first INTERACT research station – in Northern Sweden – some of the people we met and our initial foray out into to a National Park for some good ole participatory mapping work.