UCL Research Domains


Together We Create: Series 2, Episode 5

Environmental data justice

We are most likely to think about environmental data as sets of facts, but have you thought of it as having a social life? In this episode, we explore how those who collect and prepare environmental data may not necessarily be the ones to use or benefit from it: Dr Tone Walford and Dr Cecilia Chavana-Bryant draw on their experiences of collecting data across the Amazon in Brazil, French Guiana and Peru, and more recently in Hampstead Heath in London, the UK, to consider more collaborative and equitable forms of environmental data. We discuss how bringing together anthropologists, artists, forest ecologists, remote sensing specialists, and the UK’s Ancient Tree Forum, is helping to frame alternative modes of collecting, accessing, and sharing environmental data. 

Tone Walford, Lili Golmohammadi, Cecilia Chavana-Bryant 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:13 

Hello and welcome to Together We Create a podcast about collaborative social research. My name is Lili Golmohammadi, and I'm a collaborative researcher working across design technology and social research at UCL. In each episode, I'll be talking to academics at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with researchers outside of their own discipline and hearing about them and their research as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach. In this episode, I'm joined by two guests. Dr. Cecilia Chavana-Bryant, and Dr. Tone Walford. Tone is a lecturer in digital anthropology based in UCL's anthropology department. They have an MA in social anthropology and a PhD in anthropology of science and science and technology studies. Cecilia, is a forest ecologist and a postdoctoral research fellow funded by the National Center for Earth Observation based in UCL's geography department. She has an MSc in botanical conservation, and a PhD in geography and the environment. Cecilia, let's start with you. So I understand you've been climbing trees since you were a small child, and that as a PhD student, you climbed some of the tallest trees in the Amazon in Peru and French Guyana. Could you tell us about your ongoing relationship to trees? Why are they so interesting to you?  

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  01:40 

Well, I've always... they've always been part of my life. Frankly, as a kid, they used to be my refuge. I used to - whenever I was in trouble. I used to run away from my mom when she was a bit miffed with me. And I used to run onto a tree. I had a whole I had a whole escape route between jumping on my street between trees and roofs. So they've always been I've always felt felt very safe in trees. I've like you said, during my PhD. I spent two years climbing some of the tallest trees in the Amazon. And people kind of worry make a face when I when I tell them that but trees are are a safe place for me. I am just fascinating by learning as much as they can about them. 

Lili Golmohammadi  02:28 

I was quite pleased, when I saw that we were gonna do a podcast with you. Because I've been, I got a bit of tree fever last year. And I I've been through about seven books on trees, just just out of the blue, I'm starting to share your fascination. So I'm looking forward to this conversation very much. And yeah, so you both both of you, you have this track record of working in interdisciplinary teams and Tone as an anthropologist, I know, you've worked with climate scientists and technicians in the Brazilian Amazon to explore the scientific digitisation of the forest, you've investigated the social effects of this data within local and wider climate change knowledge economies. Could you unpack that for our listeners a bit? Why does this relationship matter?  

Tone Walford  03:14 

So I went and I spent a year and a bit with meteorologists, climate scientists, hydrologists, and data technicians and people who were kind of looking after all the data that was being produced by these researchers in the Brazilian Amazon. And what I was doing is I was looking at the way in which this data, the scientific data, which is often thought about as relatively inert in and of itself. So it's used to make knowledge about the Amazon, I was looking at how actually there is this very, very rich and complex economy of data sharing and exchange within the scientific community, and the movement and circulation and exchange and collection of this data had a really kind of social, lively universe accruing around it. So people were creating relationships with other people through data, they were imagining themselves future possibilities for themselves. They had their future possibilities taken away from them through different negotiations with data. There were all kinds of aspirations and hopes, and also all kinds of histories. So all kinds of ideas about colonialism, appropriation, dispossession, this is obviously a very kind of, it's a, it's an area of the world where there have been centuries of colonial occupation in different forms, was all being done through data through information. So it became a way for me to look at much broader questions through what you might think of as a kind of like informational politics of Climate Science. 

Lili Golmohammadi  04:35 

Can you give us a concrete example?  

Tone Walford  04:36 

Yeah, sure. It's different for different fields, sites and different research projects. And so the kinds of things that I started to see were, for example, the way in which the people who are working on the data so the, what I call the data technicians, or what they call themselves as data cleaners, so the people who are part of the, and this is the context of an international collaboration, which has already got tensions, shaping it in terms of have different amounts of funding in terms of different scholarly communities norms and conventions around practice. So within this space I was working mostly on the Brazilian side, and I was sitting, a lot of time just hanging out alongside, you know, next to people who are cleaning the data processing the data for other people to use, basically. So these were Brazilian people who had master's degrees, for the most part, they were women in the group that I was working in. And they were processing the data, but never using the data themselves. And what I noticed through these kinds of very long drawn out sets of conversations that I had with people over the course of that year, was that was that people were these data technicians, people who are processing the data. And these data cleaners had a real sense of kind of what I call kind of truncated personhood. So they weren't, they were cleaning the data and investing the data in this power to represent the world, which is basically what science claims to be able to do right through it's been through the scientific method to all of these intricate technical processes, it can speak about the world, with truth with accuracy with veracity, they were giving, imbuing the data with all of that through a really intimate set of techniques that required them to know enormous amounts of detail about the sites from which the data was collected, the different idiosyncrasies of the equipment that was used to collect the data in the context of in the context of the Amazon, where they were using instruments, for example, that had been built specifically for temperate climates and not tropical climate. So they were working against the kind of Imperial tendencies of, of technical design, as they were doing this. And so all of that kind of tacit knowledge and practice and experience that they had. And they were putting into the processing of this data, they were producing something, which then other people got to use. So they never got to publish with the data. They never got to have, they didn't really have their name inputs to the data in any way. And so I got a real sense of the way in which for them, their personhood and their sense of self and their subjectivity was was all wrapped up in their relationship to the data in a way that they couldn't carry it forward into anything else. And they would watch other people publish and do all kinds of exciting collaborative things, and they were never able to. This is one example of the social life of data. 

Lili Golmohammadi  07:16 

Yeah, that's that's a very, very concrete vivid example. And I can see how that must have informed this social science plus project that you've done more recently, together with Cecilia and and a wider team. So how did you use that project to question and develop more equitable and collaborative forms of data driven environmental scientific engagement. 

Tone Walford  07:43 

So what was interesting was that one part of the project was was using a series of networks of people who are engaged in these questions and people who do care about these issues and have noticed inequities and imbalances and power asymmetries within their work that they want to do something about, I started to interview environmental scientists about their work practices, and I did a series of about 10 interviews with different people that either Cecilia knew or those people had put me in touch with, a kind of snowball effect. And this is this is an ongoing project. But it's with a view to developing a set of resources, most probably a data justice workshop that we could we could pilot at UCL within the kind of early career slash PhD level training for environmental sciences, so that they start thinking about these questions before they start collecting their data as they're developing their projects. So as I said, it's kind of it's kind of ongoing, but what we're doing at the moment is collating information from more established researchers, both more established researchers and very mobilised and engaged early career PhD level researchers as to what they think best practice would look like what problems have they encountered, it's very been very interesting talking to the older researchers who've often had a kind of like, epiphany moment where they're like, oh my gosh, what am I doing? How have I not thought about this before? So that's one side. 

Lili Golmohammadi  09:00 

So I know that you and the team were also exploring notable trees in Hampstead Heath in London in the UK. So that's one of the largest single areas of common grounds in in Greater London and you are interested in working with the people with who have long standing relationships to this place. So how did you and the team combine this expertise in environmental science and anthropology to research this area? 

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  09:25 

Well, we had a really nice workshop which involved arborists so the people that actually look after the trees in this common and it's great common resource that everyone gets to enjoy in London. So we had people - arborists, the people that are looking after those trees, so they have a specific perspective on these trees. Their job is to worry about the health of these trees, keeping them going and sometimes it includes sometimes you know, there are notable, famous trees, ancient trees there that people want to go and visit. So Sometimes it involves putting some kind of signage to just make people aware that there's a delicate, you know, you have to step lightly, you know, be delicate, there's something delicate and worth noting in, in taking care of. And then there's the people that live around the heath. So the people that have these relationships with, with trees, with, with the forests, with the canopy with the ground with what's growing, and then being aware that there is a lot of history around these trees. I mean, when we're talking about ancient trees, we're talking about trees that have been there for 1000 years. And, you know, they've they've experienced the history of, of wherever they are, and they share that there have been they've been hideouts for royalty, you know, some of these ancient trees, people have been chained to them. And, you know, they're they've always been very, there's, there's a tree in Cornwall, that an ancient tree that has properties for pregnancy, you know, it's supposed to be really good for pregnant women to visit this tree. So there is this whole world of data where this data exists, we need that data to kind of to look after our forests and trees. But we also, for me, personally, it's very important, all of that context, that social political context and having these trees, I'm getting a lot into urban trees, because I grew up with a single mom and I lived in in in a very working class, very simple neighborhood, no green areas. And this is this is something that is very important, you know, these resources should be shared equally. And sometimes you have these green areas available in the richest places where the houses have their own nice gardens, were in neighborhoods that are less well off. There are devoid of green areas, and people just don't have gardens. And if they do they have more practical gardens with herbs and stuff like that, that they can use. I guess that's that's where I'm coming from.  

Lili Golmohammadi  12:05 

Yeah, these are very important points in this growing trend. Now, unfortunately, that fewer and fewer people have access to green spaces, bring it back to the team and exploring this, this space, this whole context and you had this you know, you two and you worked with a remote sensing specialists at UCL, and also an artist interaction designer at UAL called Joel Gethan Lewis, so maybe Tone, could you just tell us a bit more about the methods that you use?  

Tone Walford  12:38 

I would like to also just to mention that there's another personal material called Emily Glazer,  Dr Emily Glazer, and she's also an anthropologist, so she was working very closely with me on the kind of anthropological side of the project, and also working very closely with me, with Joel, who you just mentioned, Emily has a background in I think, like user driven research and so has been, like, invaluable actually in straddling the the two worlds of kind of design that Joel does and kind of intellectual academic inquiry that I do, which, which haven't always been, like, easy bedfellows, I suppose. So what we started off by doing was, we organised a walking workshop around the Heath with the people who Cecilia mentioned, were part of a group called the Ancient Tree Forum, who are members of the public, for the most part, who are very engaged in ancient trees in the UK and protecting them. And in some cases, you know, trying to ensure their accessibility for people who wouldn't maybe normally have access to them. And there are a couple of them. I didn't know how many actually on Hampstead Heath, there were two of particular interest that we wanted to focus on. Because Cecilia and Matt had been involved in creating a lidar scan of them. 

Lili Golmohammadi  13:48 

Could you say something about about what a lidar scan is?  

Tone Walford  13:51 

Maybe Cecilia should say something about that. 

Lili Golmohammadi  13:53 

Yeah, I've seen on your website, you I had to look it up.  

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  13:57 

It's a much simpler thing than then it sounds. It's basically it's 3d mapping, which I know it's, it's, it's, it's getting very common. It's basically an instrument that sends lasers and it spins around it creates a scene by sending lasers and so the laser hits something so when it hits the surface, if you think it hits the surface, it's basically creating it we're creating point clouds basically 3d data is point clouds it's all it's a collection of 1000s millions of points that are being sent out to land somewhere and basically you get a map of all those surfaces, you get a map you get the architecture of a tree and you know these architecture will have certain meanings scientifically in terms of mechanic pressures, display photosynthesis light, and then you have conservation the people the people like the the Ancient Tree Forum, and arborists are part of their network which look at these trees and so these through these 3d data, we can give these kind of like map of the architecture the tree where they can see. So we get what we want, you know, out of it, the scientific data, and then we can pass it on to the people that look after these trees. And they actually, they're, it's, they're, they're finding the sharing of these data. So they have an image that they can actually point to, and they can say, this branch or that branch, and they can make calculations themselves about where if they have to cut something, you know, to protect the tree or, or something or clear, you know, a lot around it is making shade, things like that. And then as you have a digital image, you can also share it in the internet, and people that can't have the access, actually can can look at these, these incredible models. And if you if you put goggles on, you know, if you put it on 3d goggles, I mean, you having a submersive experience, ultimately, it's not just fancy and beautiful. It's practical data. And that can be cherished also for for its for its visuals. 

Lili Golmohammadi  16:08 

Yeah, I love it. I can't, I know you're gonna share few images from your projects. I'm looking forward to seeing that. So. So just going back to what Tone was saying about I know, it's an ongoing process still, like thinking about how to understand and manage environmental change data in the future. But yeah, what aspects, insights specifically, just more broadly, did this kind of multidisciplinary aspect of the project offer? What are you starting to think? What does it, what does it offer? 

Tone Walford  16:38 

So we had a lidar. And so what we did was we kind of shared this image as the scientific data that was our kind of main interest with volunteers from the ancient tree forum. So we asked for volunteers to come. And we got them to reflect on the image itself and the data itself and how it might or might not resonate with their own experiences of these trees. Because these two trees are they're called, they're called locally I think some people call them Romeo and Juliet, they sit in the bit of the Heath called Sandy Heath, and it's a very well known to the local community. So people have stories about them. So we asked him to reflect on the extent to which their stories about the Heath about the trees on the Heath about the specific trees on the Heath might or might not show us what is missing from these kinds of charismatic datasets that Cecilia is talking about, how we might think about the relationship between them or lived experience of the Heath and what these datasets show. And so what we then have done with Joel, which is one of the kind of outputs of this, I suppose, and it is ongoing, like you said, is we're working on how to develop, and I'm not I don't even know what you would call it. I know, I was gonna say artistic provocations, but they're sort of provocations, which capture the insights that we got from talking to people about their relationship to the youth, and how that might or might not articulate with the data itself with the scientific data itself. So these provocations are geared towards different audiences. One audience, which is scientists themselves, so some of the provocations that we're thinking about with Joel are how would we get scientists to think about the social and political context of the trees? Let's say if they're, they're interested in trees that they're working with? So would we get them to have to visit the site themselves in person before they work with the, with the project? And how would we prompt them to do that? Would we get them to if they'd want to think about the tree as a living organism, or set to access the data might they have to grow a little plant of their own and experience what it's like to have to look after a living organism that was trying to get at the idea of, you know, the extent to which data can't capture the some of the kind of organic aliveness of a tree. So things that came out of the conversations that we had, we've tried to engineer hypothetical prototypes of provocations geared towards the scientific community, but then also geared towards geared towards the community themselves. So trying to think through how might their relationship towards the Heath and towards those trees be captured in other forms of artistic kind of intervention. So we're in the process of doing that. And when Joel is mocking up these prototypes, now we're going to take those back to these group of this group of volunteers in, I think, February or March to get some feedback from them, because it's a collaborative process that we've kind of done the work with them. And then they're going to feed back to us what they think works and what doesn't work. And then and then we'll take it from there in a kind of iterative process. 

Lili Golmohammadi  19:19 

Yeah, it sounds like a really interesting and amazing process to be a part of. Well, I want to ask you now about collaborative working more more broadly. So in this podcast series, we're exploring different ways of doing collaborative social research and as you kind of already spoken about the probably kind of varying interests and concerns in the space that you're working but in between the the different disciplines on the team on the project Cecilia, can you say something about how you all found common ground for this research? 

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  19:51 

To be honest, it wasn't difficult. Yeah, I mean, with with Tone and everything, you know, the more the social sciences, working with trees, like I said, I've always had a personal connection with trees, I don't find it difficult to imagine beyond, you know, I know as a fact that, you know, these trees exist within a community and you know, people will have relationships in one form or another, I know it as for myself. So, I think it was really interesting. I mean, we in terms of risk, like we have, we have a wider at the geography department, we have a wider project that is connected to which is SCATTER. And it's basically SCanning Ancient Tees with TERrestrial LIDAR scanning. And we went around the UK and scanned 40 ancient oaks. And so part of this collaboration with, with with Tone, and this is part of that wider project. And it's been, it's been super interesting collaborating, because we actually, the way we've analysed trees, we, we thought, as scientists, we have our ideas of what we want to know about the trees. But we actually part of the part of that the result of this project was a workshop with practitioners, the actual, the Ancient Tree Forum, people in arborists that actually look at after these ancient trees. And so we asked them, What do you need to know? What do you need to know to better look after these trees? And so we actually tailored our analyses to, to answer some of their questions. So that was super interesting. And I personally, I find it super rewarding to know that besides the the academic papers that I will be, we will be publishing about this, there will be there's that there's that practical, you know, use that we helped, you know, that conservation, those practitioners that are out in the field with them, monitoring and looking after them. So designing that designing the analysis towards helping them was really was super interesting, super rewarding. 

Lili Golmohammadi  22:11 

Yeah, I love the iterative, iterative nature of this kind of research, this continuing conversation, which just is really beautiful and rewarding and encouraging in this current state of climate pressure. So it's great to hear. So, Tone, also, I want to ask, maybe you can just talk more and more generally, you know, beyond this, this project and beyond what what key benefits have been realised for you working collaboratively? 

Tone Walford  22:41 

It's all of the ways in which I've worked collaboratively have been quite different, I suppose. Just to kind of echo Cecilia, I think one of the things that was interesting, and kind of enlightening about this project was, I mentioned this before was kind of the point at which you met. And there were many points in which we met. And many, several of those points, I did find surprising, because there were assumptions that I had about other disciplines that were overturned, and challenged by a by talking to Cecilia and talking to the people that Cecilia had introduced me to. And but there were also questions and it forced me to ask about the points where we were not that we didn't meet, but where there wasn't such an obvious meeting point. So for me, the constant question was, which was raised was how useful is my work outside of academia, outside of anthropology, I was I have a very specific circle in which I can say something like, data has a social life. And people understand what I mean, not just that there are communities of people who are invested in that data, but then the data itself has kind of social and political properties, let's say. So I think there's a kind of point to which people will go with you. And under the point at which there's a disciplinary extension, or suspension of common sense that allows you to go the rest of the way, which I find really, when you're working with something that everyone thinks they know what it is, like data or information happens to me a lot of the time. And so it was really interesting, working out how far we could take the more extreme versions of what I was saying, like, you know, how would it be possible to think about data as a person, for example, you know, and at what point can I can I take people with me, and what language do I have to divert to take people with me? And at what point do I have to say, Okay, that's enough. We've got enough of the way now and how can we make that into an important intervention into this space? So that was, that's been really interesting. For me working in a situation in which we have had so much common languages, it's pushed me to think beyond just the superficial collaboration, and what actually deep intellectual collaboration might look like. So but I've had, you know, I've had that with different different people.  

Lili Golmohammadi  24:40 

And yeah, just on the flip side of that, it's always useful to hear about challenges and tensions as well and like how you work through these, have you experienced any challenge challenges or tensions trying to work across disciplines and have you managed them?  

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  24:56 

Oh my gosh, where to start? Where to begin? It's people - we're working with people, it's always going to be, we all have our own heads, we all have our own worlds. But yeah, I think being from Mexico and working in the tropics has, it's a particular perspective. Because I don't come. I mean, I have all my science degrees are from the UK, and I've done all my science degrees here in the UK, there's there's benefits that come with that - finance, knowledge, you know, language. I mean, I'm, I've been a dual dual language speaker, since I was very young. There is all of these issues were working in the field, I was very conscious of the local local people, that there was something that I wasn't doing that helicopter science that I was just coming in, extracting what I wanted, and moving on. So I've always, when in my PhD, I remember I had to fight this, they were refusing, they would insure me and bear in mind that I'm doing the, you know, when you're climbing, it's considered work at heights, and it's it's dangerous work, right? So they would insure me, but they wouldn't insure my local assistance. And so I thought, well, this is unacceptable. How can I, I mean, I'm basically asking them to put their life on the line, you know, climb 40... you know, one of my one of my trees, you know, if you're climbing redwoods, it's 100 meters, you know, it's dangerous. So I had to fight for that I actually had, I was I was also affiliated to another institution. And I had to, I had to insure them through the other institution. We had to fight it. And it was all these kind of Latino, and it's actually funnily enough for Latina women that we were doing on field work that were like, what, what's going on here? We can't - you can't do this. You can't like, ensure us and not our volunteers who are giving their time generously. So there's just issues like that you try to, to give back? I think, for me, it's just, it's just that give back, make sure that everyone gets something out of out of the work. 

Lili Golmohammadi  27:15 

Yeah, so it sounds like, really, the challenges and tensions are coming more from a cross cultural institutional point. And and yeah, Tone, what about you challenges or tensions working across disciplines? What have you experienced them? How have you managed them? 

Tone Walford  27:35 

Well, I mean, I think I have been in situations where I have, where I have been at the kind of sharp end of kind of disciplinary hierarchies, I suppose. I think that's one of the things that as a as a social scientist, and as a kind of, like critical qualitative social scientists, like I was saying before, where you're pushing ideas, you're challenging, taken for granted assumptions. You're constantly deconstructing, you're taken less seriously by people who consider themselves to be harder scientists often. And so I've been in situations where I've been told relatively recently actually like to, to sort of stop with the questioning in case I upset the scientists that I was working with. What was kind of worse in a way for me was that there was this kind of glaring, the big kind of elephant in the room was that this was a very gendered divide. So people who were all kind of like, white cis men, scientists were feeling scared, threatened and challenged by a group of non male social scientists who were asking them questions. And I just thought, and this wasn't that long ago. And it wasn't, it wasn't actually at UCL. I just thought this is absurd. So I feel like what is interesting about these kinds of tensions of collaboration is you're never just talking about disciplines. I think this is the problem. It's something that says if we could get these disciplines and bang them together, we've got interdisciplinarity. But as Cecilia said, disciplines are full of people, people do disciplines and will have complex intersectional positionality that they bring with them. And so when you're thinking about bringing stuff together, all of that matters. And that's actually you know, disciplines have a social life. That's also the message... 

Lili Golmohammadi  29:09 

yeah, that's a good point. I love that. 

Tone Walford  29:12 

Disciplines have a social and political life. So. So yeah, so it's navigating those I suppose. 

Lili Golmohammadi  29:17 

So. Lastly, I'm hoping that you can both offer some advice for social researchers who want to collaborate with climate scientists, artists and interaction designers and others, and vice versa. Tone, what qualities and skills would you say have helped you to move between the different research perspectives that have been central to your well to your social science plus project or any of your projects? 

Tone Walford  29:44 

Okay, well, I suppose I would say the stuff which everyone says, which is like, you've got to be open to other people's perspectives. You've got to be willing to like listen, but I would also say like, from my perspective, like pick your battles, like so there'll be some things that you should really stand your ground on and it will make for a better collaboration. And that might be anything from like Cecilia was saying, demanding insurance for your, that might be an ethical question to want to insurance for your, for your research assistants, or it might be an intellectual question. But I think being deliberate about what you let slide and what you stick with is a useful tip I've found. 

Lili Golmohammadi  30:20 

And Cecilia, do you have anything you want to add to that about qualities and skills that have helped you? 

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  30:26 

Yeah, I think pick the people, you know, pick the people you want to work with? Yeah, make sure that the team, you know, it depends on the work. It's kind of like there's some people like I'm very field based, you know, you have to pick a pick a, you know, people with team that, that will be able to work with others people. I've had remote sensors, I work with remote sensing data, but it's grounded with all my fieldwork. But I've had remote sensors that have that have gone to the to the tropical forests, and they panic, you know, they can't deal with it. They feel because it's very busy. It's overwhelming. There's loads of insects, the heat, the humidity, everything gets you. So yeah, I think just careful selection of your of your partners is good. It's good insurance and negotiation. I mean, compromise. You know, it's kind of it is basic stuff, but it is people we're dealing with, you know, besides the science, having the skills, there's also the people the personalities that you're going to be spending time with in an in a strange place for both of you.  

Lili Golmohammadi  31:37 

Absolutely, really get advice from both of you. And thank you both so much for talking to me today. It's been a really, really thought provoking fascinating conversation. And yeah, I look forward to seeing how your projects develop in the future.  

Tone Walford  31:56 

Thank you for the opportunity to chat with you. 

Cecilia Chavana-Bryant  31:58 

And great chat and yeah, great conversation great ideas... 

Lili Golmohammadi  32:06 

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by myself Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Cecilia Chavana-Bryant and Tone Walford. If you want to find out more about their research or the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain.