Towards a collaborative future, the silver lining amidst the crisis

In recent weeks, we have all started to increasingly populate our daily reads with news about COVID-19. As an EthicalGEO Fellow, I have been on top of reports about how governments are accessing geolocation data of diagnosed patients to trace back their activities and identify other potential cases. This idea has raised many concerns about the ethical implications of the use of these data and the development of infrastructure that will allow governments to track their citizens, potentially even after the crisis is gone. However, amidst this crisis and the many issues associated with it, there is one silver lining, the explosion of ideas and alternatives to promote working from home and engage in effective remote collaborations.

Since early March, many conferences and working meetings were cancelled all over the world. Hosts rapidly started coming up with ideas on what to do with registrations? Whether to postpone their events or host online sessions? What tools are available for this? As the crisis continued, many countries encouraged their citizens to stay at home, and particularly in academic setups, to work from home. Again, people who work in groups rapidly started thinking about the best ways to collaborate online, to improve techniques to host and facilitate virtual meetings, and in general, to keep their work going from home. In less than one month, we have seen how researchers adapt to this new lifestyle, how conferences that were canceled are now announcing online sessions, and how we are increasing our familiarity with online tools and trying to stay connected and productive.

While all of these new ideas have been quite successfully implemented in the US, Europe and other developed countries, we are now facing a new challenge, how to engage as effectively our collaborators in other places of the world? For example, in March 6th, I was supposed to fly to Palau with a group from the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford. Our objective was to start a collaboration with the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) to host a training on data analysis and visualization techniques. As the COVID-19 crisis exploded, our plans were suspended, and we found ourselves wondering whether we could do this remotely. Unfortunately, we were unprepared for this shift, our 30 hours training would not be very engaging if not in person, the time difference (17 hours) would make it nearly impossible to match our schedules, and the internet connectivity in Palau might not allow us to have an efficient communication. Today, we are still struggling with all the challenges, but we have taken a decision, we will start developing materials to make this an online collaboration.

The first step was to identify the different modules of this training: (1) database design, (2) data collection and cleaning, (3) exploratory analysis, (4) visualization, and (5) outreach. The next step will be to identify which modules could be developed into online materials, and which ones will have to be postponed for an in-person meeting. Our basic plan now is to kick off each module with an online call to go over the basics and then assign reading and exercises. After a couple of days, we will check in and progress as the group digests the materials. Hopefully a 30 hours intensive session can be diluted into a set of weekly meetings over the next couple of months.

The obvious limitations to this approach include: (1) promoting the continued engagement of attendants, (2) thinking of a strategy that minimizes the burden on the online connectivity, and (3) developing the materials themselves. These are all challenges that we are just starting to think about, but that we will need to overcome if we are to continue our collaboration with PICRC. Additionally, we are not the only ones thinking about alternatives for remote courses, as universities and research groups face a similar challenge. Hopefully many people will share their experiences and we will find common lessons that will advance our capacity to teach online.

By the end of this crisis, the world will be a different place, and amidst all the things that will have occurred, maybe we will be better connected and able to promote remote collaborations that can tackle bigger problems. Indeed, technology is proving to be a powerful tool to connect us even when faced with spatial boundaries, just in the same way as geospatial data and technology are helping to meet other societal needs in these challenging times.

I am Alfredo Giron and I was born in Mexico City. Most of my research has focused on developing methods to assess fisheries sustainability in rural communities and linking the results to their economic development. Through my work I realized that we don’t have an understanding of how to define poverty in these communities. Thus, my EthicalGEO project is to develop a framework to characterize different sphere/types of poverty in fishing communities and use this information to create a global map. The EthicalGEO fellowship will give me the opportunity to exchange ideas with other fellows and world experts and collaboratively create an impactful and meaningful map of the prevalence of poverty in fishing communities.