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Research Methods

Choosing Graduate Schools for a Masters in Urban Planning (City, Town, Regional etc)

Oxford University is beautiful but is it the best context for innovation?  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013

About once a week I receive an email from an urban planning student interested in working in international development, or post-conflict reconstruction, or sometimes even just traditional town planning.  They all ask me the same question,  "where to attend graduate school? " I try to be helpful, but my best answer is somewhat longwinded and disappointing.

I have two major thoughts on the matter. First, it just depends on what you specifically hope to accomplish in your life many years after graduate school.  Second, I doubt where you go to school really matters that much.  I say this because my entire adult life has been a process of building something from nothing.  I didn't start off in fancy schools and I definitely didn't have any sort of social network or money.  I went to the schools that were nearby, pursued every chance for something better, and eventually built the career I wanted.

When I attended graduate school, it was not a deep decision process, but a rather a sudden thing.  I decided that I wanted to go back to school and found a backdoor into a local program within 48 hours. At the time I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio and the University of Cincinnati has one of the top ranking Architecture and design schools in the world.  So I enrolled in a few classes on a student a loan via a certificate program. Then in the mid-term I applied to the program with an established reputation among faculty.  I received a significant scholarship and the path was set.

That was in 2005.  Now, nearly 10 years later, I have a few thoughts on how to do it better.  I was able to apply these toward a PhD in Transition Design at Carnegie Mellon. You can read about that in Advice For Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning, but for a masters - I have some other ideas as well.


Summary
Q: So where should you attend graduate school?  
A: Attend the program that is thinking about the problems of the future.  Attend the program that has the resources and tools to facilitate the vision you have.  Attend the program that is flexible when you realize your vision needs to change.  Attend the program that has a clear technical focus to give you the tools you need to manage life after graduate school, but cares sufficiently about theory to give you the range to use those tools. The only factors that matter are the decisions you make and the relationships you create to go beyond program, not those that are situated within the program.


Five Urban Planning Priorities for Graduate School
1. Focus on technical skills.  Most people who study international relations, international development, or political and social science lack technical skills.  You can read 1,000 books on development issues, but it is very difficult to learn econometric analysis, site planning, GIS, statistics, or computer programming outside the classroom.  The skill will get you the job.  I've never been hired because I understand sociology, but I've been hired for several jobs because I can calculate the economic impact of a project in a community.  So what skills can they teach you?

2. Examine curriculums.  I believe many graduate Urban Planning curriculums are heavily outdated. Progressive curriculums can be easily overlooked - for example, I think Ohio State has a far more compelling program than the top ranking programs at USC and Berkley. Many of the programs also have an underlying thematic focus tied to the location of the school and the strength of the university at large.  UVA, for example, is heavily focussed on environmental issues.  University of Cincinnati is strongest within economic development for rust belt cities.  Rutgers is exceptional concerning public health.  Is the curriculum tied to a place you want to be, and to problems you want to solve?  Is it tied to the urban planning problems of the future or of the past?

3. Location is premium.  Where do you want to live after grad school?  I believe location is the biggest element of consideration.  If you do an MCP in Boston, you will be immediately predisposed toward a career in Boston.  Same with Hawaii. You can build significant relationships during your MCP with local businesses and create a network to propel you forward.  This was great at UC for the people who wanted to be in Cincinnati.  For someone with an international focus, it did little.  I know people who went to grad school in Egypt because they wanted to work in the Middle East. That was more effective than going to any school in America.  Where do you want to live?

4. Theory?  Yes.  In addition to planning, I pursued an MS in Architectural Theory and Criticism.  At the time I did it because they gave me a fellowship and - admittedly - while doing the program I thought it was a waste of time.  But the truth is, those 2 intense years of studying phenomenology, critical theory, and marxist social theory, are the key to my ability to fuse the creativity of art and design with the precision of statistics and GIS.  The theory is the reason I work differently from other urban planners.  If you want your work to be different from the mainstream, then your thinking needs to be outside the mainstream. Learn to think different.

5. Research Methods. Does the program only require you take one course in research methods? Thats not enough.  Learn all the different kinds of methods possible.  My program required three research method courses and I ultimately took five, which was perhaps the best decision I made during that time. Make sure to be open minded about this too... I consider computer programming, data base design, graphic design tools, and courses in archaeology or linguistics as research methods. Anything that will teach you how to abstract a given scenario so as to make new sense of it. Learn how to learn.


Why The School and Program Does Not Matter
1. The Lower-Level Content is the Same.  When I was in my early 20s, I was intimidated by people who attended Ivy league schools or famous institutions like Georgetown.  I thought they must be geniuses and their education was superior.  Eventually I realized the error of these perceptions.  Often those students had better social assets when they were younger and often those schools had more resources to offer the students.  As for the material in the classroom - its the same. 

For example, if you take a computer  programming class at Harvard (CS50) vs any other school, the material is identical - (variables, strings, lists, tuples, functions, objects in Python or Java). At the generic school your resources consist of a library, some office hours and an overworked teaching assistant.  At Harvard you have tons of videos, networks, workshops, demos and tutors for the exact same class.  The coursework will be harder but there are more resources, so if you use them, arguably it is easier to learn at Harvard than at EKU. It just depends on your commitment.

2. The Quality of Higher Level Content is Self-Determined.  As an MCP graduate student, you are expected to use existing methods to identify a new piece of knowledge.  The methods are fairly universal.  How you apply them is up to you.  A school might have resources to help your investigation, but if it doesn't, then you need to find them - and you can.

Obviously there are advantages at an expensive school because you can more easily create opportunities to apply the methods.  For example, if you walk down "The Infinite Corridor" at MIT, there are posters advertising opportunities to work all over Africa, paid positions with companies and lab research internships.  The majority of schools can't offer these resources like MIT.  However, while I was at the University of Cincinnati, I managed to work at the United Nations Headquarters, design refugee camps with NGOs, and get a Fulbright grant to Egypt.  All of this was tied to my research and not the university.  It wasn't easy but it was possible.  Where you do your research and how it unfolds is up to you.


Looking Beyond Grad School
Rather than asking "where should I go to grad school" it is important to take the question a step forward and ask "where do I want to live after grad school?" and "in what form?" Look at the LinkedIn profiles of people working in the places you want to be, get an idea of what their life is like, and research their background.  Is that what you want? 

If you look at this quick visualization of my own LinkedIn network, you will see that all my relationships are more tightly clustered around places I've worked than actual institutions or jobs. The far right, orange and green cluster are indeed my connections from the University of Cincinnati.  But this is only a fraction of the total professional network.  The majority is rooted in the 2 years I lived in Egypt, the 3 years in Afghanistan, and then a sprinkling of connections obtained from my time in Washington DC and New York City.   If I was seeking a professional opportunity, these are the groups I would contact rather than the grad school people. 


Once You are In the Program
In the program, the most important thing is that you establish a strong relationship with one or two faculty members who can mentor you and will also work for you. Most people want to work with the foremost expert on his/her topic... but that is less significant at the Masters level.  I was fortunate to have Johanna Looye and Adrian Parr at my side. Johanna is a Latin America development specialist and Adrian is a sustainability philosopher.  I know little about either topic, but I could rely on them since sometimes you might need to bend the rules or need someone to go above and beyond. Ultimately, it is more important to have a mentor who answers email than is an expert in your particular research interest.  I had that person too... and he wasted all my time because he was too busy with his research to arrive at appointments, respond to questions, or assist with hard problems.


Final Outcome
If you pursue your vision and are a creative and capable individual, its going to be really hard to find a job.  Especially if you want to work in conflict.  So the concern is not - where do you go to graduate school.  The critical question is "how do you survive and thrive after?"

Data is Not Sterile: What is Geospatial Data Made From?


When I first started working with GIS and GPS data there were two basic truths. One, all GIS was equal to ESRI ArcGIS. And two, all data I need is neatly organized in a database somewhere on a server - you just need to find the server.  Three months later I moved to the Dadaab refugee camps and discovered no software, no data, and no server.  The head camp architect for the UN had never even heard of GIS.

At the time, I struggled with a solution.  In one project I was tasked with site plans for some buildings for Save the Children. I conducted an array of interviews in the camps to select the sites. Then I used a satellite phone to get GPS coordinates from which I extrapolated distances and drew vector maps in Autocad. I imposed the Autocad layer on top of a scanned topo map. The vectors could also be exported to ArcGIS upon return to my US university, since I obviously didn't have the money for a personal ESRI suite.  Technically, the solution worked well enough but I encountered another unforeseen challenge.  

Now the only problem is about the quality of the data. What is the combination of objectivity and subjectivity that goes into the creation of a single POI? How does we measure its value and how do we design the data collection to maximize that value?

For years I continued to search for strategies to create GIS data in places where it was unavailable. I experimented with walking papers, proposed ideas to software development friends, and wrestled with ambiguity.  I experimented for years with this problem in Egypt and was never happy with the outcome.  When I discovered the mobile application Fulcrum sometime in 2010 or 2011, my eyes were opened to the world of mobile data collection.  Suddenly the technical side of the problem was solved.  I could geolocate any survey. How you design the survey for the creation of spatial data is another matter.

The quality of the data is a continual obsession of mine.  Working in dangerous environments or even in multiple cultures creates special problems.  For example, if I were asked to rank the quality of infrastructure in Somalia, personally - I would label all of it as poor. There has been barely any development in decades but lots of bombs and bullets. In my eyes, as an American urban planner and designer, every road in Somalia is a nightmare.  But does that judgement present any value? Does this do any service to an external analyst or local project manager?

No.

Because of the demanding conditions, it is more important to rank the data according to the values of the local population.  In the eyes of a person who has lived in Somalia for a lifetime, how does one road compare against another?  It is through this local level comparison that the POI earns higher level of value to the analyst.  To continue the road example, I can now use this data to estimate the scheduling of work or to select where to start, such as the area in most need or the quick fix? Obviously, from my perspective everything needs improved, but now I can adapt my project to the local context for improved success. The population will recognize that the development is starting with the worst road - or going for the quick fix - and this understanding generates support.  Working in dangerous conditions, there is no such thing as too much support, regardless of the endeavor.

All budding cartographers must realize that no GIS data is founded on a universal set of standards. Every POI is connected to a body of perceptions, values, and judgements.  When we look at the collective data, we are looking at a story about a place and we are looking through the eyes of the person(s) that assembled the story. 

You might argue that some data is somehow void of this conflict. Census data, for example, seems fairly objective. But this is not the case - instead, census data is established by opening the story creation to all participants.  By means of the aggregate we get closer to objectivity, but the deeper you drill into the data, the more ambiguity will present itself. While some questions might seem objective (how many children do you have?), their simplicity is deceptive.  Another question - how many people live in your household? - will not bring the authorities crashing if the respondent answers "14" in a 1-bedroom house. But will a respondent be honest to admit "14" if that is the case? It is unlikely.  Social values, paranoia, and personal psychology will inform a respondents answer.  The closer you get to the person, the closer you get to uncertainty.

Unfortunately in higher level education for geography, planning, design, and other cartography related fields, there has been little focus on data creation. It is seen as a purely technical process. Yet I argue that students should begin their GIS studies by building the data before learning about the variety of GIS tools for analysis (note: variety, not just ESRI). Only by building the data will students learn to recognize the subtleties of its composition and help them become more critical of their own work.  

A nuanced understanding of the data will contribute to deeper levels of insight into the the data set and ultimately to a broader understanding of other data components such as the importance of metadata and data shelf-life. After all, GIS data is snapshot of a given moment in an ever changing world, only by understanding its creation can we realize its mortality, ultimately, to realize how to leverage its death. There is definitely something called "bad data," yet I'd argue that a more common data affliction is "poorly understood." This problem isn't difficult to fix, you just need to start building it yourself.

News and updates from Hspace


I admit it has been awhile since I've posted anything, but I've been overwhelmed with various projects lately.   I've recently returned from a month of fieldwork in Ethiopia followed by multiple speaking engagements in Canada and the US.   Here are updates on some recent activities and hopefully I can soon return to writing.


Article
Over at the Fulcrum blog you can read my recent article on how to use mobile applications for qualitative data collection.  Too often social scientists dismiss the capability of mobile applications for ethnographic research, citing that mobile devices create barriers between the researcher and the research subject.  Also there is an assumption that mobile data collection requires rigid planning that is not suited for qualitative research.  In the article, I break down these assumption by explaining a step-by-step methodology to fully engage the phenomenological elements of social research while leveraging the advantage of spatial data.

Presentation
I recently presented some ongoing research at the workshop "Making Sense of Syria" at the School of Visual Arts, MFA Interaction Design.  In this workshop we have been looking at the wonderful work by Nate Rosenblum on Syria street-level data collection, the data compiled by the Syria Conflict Monitor, and the Carter Center.  At present, various working groups are assembling new tools based on these data sets.  I'm teamed up with Matthew Brigante, a MFA IX student and look forward to announcing our project in the near future. 

Company
My research and design company, Sutika Sipus, has also launched a new website at sutikasipus.com. All of my consulting and research work is now conducted through the company.  I'm very lucky to have an extraordinary team of specialists around the world.

Kabul
I've been deeply saddened, moved, and completely unsurprised by the escalating attacks in Afghanistan.  I do not believe these recent attacks will do anything to destabilize the elections, although they are an obvious effort to do so.   Having lived in Kabul for nearly 3 years, these problems have become very personal, and I am deeply concerned about those who must daily face them.   It is difficult to describe the stress that comes from living in such a place, although a friend of mine caught a recent attack on video.  While you watch this, imagine trying to fall asleep during or after such an incident.  




The New Digital Divide: Transforming the Global South into Reliable Data

Transforming the world's most hard-to-access and uncertain landscapes into digital data. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Everyday urban professionals, data scientists, economists, and geographers sit in front of a computer screen and create extraordinary visualizations and statistical methods to unravel the world.  Geographic information systems such as QGIS, statistical programs like "R", spreadsheet softwares like Excel and lines of python code have empowered us with the ability to understand economies at scale, measure and predict public health, monitor pollution and deter violence.  Data is good.

Yet what about cities, states, and nations that do not or cannot generate reliable data?  In his recent book, Poor Numbers, author Morten Jerven reveals the faulty statistics collected and published by government agencies throughout Africa.  Over the last three years that I was in Afghanistan, I witnessed nearly every single aid agency or government research contractor rely upon "perception based" data which means researchers confronted too much danger in the field to collect actual information, but could only ask locals their opinion on matters ranging from conflict to education and corruption.  This method is safe but provides zero validity.  It might as well be make-believe.

The result is the global data gap.  Governments and institutions that can transform intangible social dynamics into quantifiable data can conduct sophisticated analysis and move forward at a faster pace. This sensibility was the foundation of my initiative in Mogadishu, to create a comprehensive map of the city that fused business and residential management with geography.  As my operation was too small to go beyond the proof of concept, the vision was eventually passed via the local government and integrated into a longstanding UN initiative to develop a city planning department which is advancing with some success.  Yet while Mogadishu may be on the cusp of a digital governance revolution, problems persist.  Data dies.  Situations change.  More dramatically, very little of the world is generating the data sets commonly enjoyed throughout the west.

The global data gap is economically inhibitive. Imagine if your company sought a new market opportunity because the markets your normally serve are saturated with your product and your competitors.  Most companies would never imagine distribution in an African nation, partly because of misled beliefs on stability of those markets, but that those misconceptions are ultimately founded on a lack of reliable data.  With no local data, there is no global opportunity.

This is also a failure for companies that already working in data-deficient nations.  A few months ago I had a meeting with Afghanistan's largest tele-communications provider, Roshan, and when I asked about coverage, they could only give vague feedback.  When I asked for data on every household using Roshan to access the internet in Kabul, they could not give this information because Kabul doesn't have a postal address system, so all installations are tied to a person's name and neighborhood, but not a specific address.  In this instance I created alternative solution, where after about three weeks of combing selected neighborhoods, I was able to generate a GPS location for every Wi-Fi network and mobile tower in each area which could then be joined with the existing data.  We could filter Roshan networks vs competitor networks and now had sufficient data to improve marketing and coverage strategies.

Location and evaluation of strength of Wi-Fi access in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Having worked throughout Africa and Asia as a researcher since 2007,  I have developed an array of techniques to get past this problem, focusing on the creation and testing of indirect indicators.  In Zimbabwe economic wealth could be measured by counting the number of water jugs in front of each house.  In the Philipines, one could count denim jeans swinging on the clothesline of an apartment.  In a variety of Somali refugee camps I found that metal roofing materials separated the less-poor from the more-poor.  In Afghanistan I have steadily been testing and re-testing the presence of graffiti as a predictor of social protest and conflict with success.  The advantage of these Rapid Rural Appraisal techniques is that they are safe, fast, efficient, and quantifiable.  To determine an RRA indicator requires extensive time on the ground, but once established, we can effectively measure anything, anywhere.  There are of course other methods, standard survey techniques, but my efforts generate GPS location, culturally relative valuation, and easily shared outcomes.  RRA is not new, but my method of fusing RRA with traditional research methods, GIS tools, and mobile technologies does create a new outcome. I produce valid, quantifiable and mappable data that is customized to the problem and the location, but can accommodate different scales.

Digital Data Collection and Mapping.
Cambodia. Sutika Sipus 2014.
To me, the global data gap is a new frontier of untapped opportunity.  Maybe more people will realize this sooner than later and I'll encounter some digital cowboys, wandering deserts with laptops and satellite phones, their backpacks sagging beneath the weight of external hard drives.  I won't be the only one canvasing the worlds most remote locations.

Maybe soon more companies will ask "what about Nigeria?  what about Ghana or Bangladesh?" and they will need answers.  They will look online and see some global statistics that are 5 years old and impossible to trust.  They will need a fresh perspective they can trust and they can see.  Something they can drop into their software and understand.  Good thing I'm easy to find.


Using Graffiti to Predict Insecurity in Afghanistan



Last spring I documented informal graffiti and political imagery throughout Kabul.  The result was over 1000 records of graffiti, which after carefully combing, resulted in about 800 data points.  Each data point is classified according within 15 different categories.  These categories include key words, language used, translation, political association, ethnic association, surface description (public building, private residence, private business etc.) and so on.  The goal was to identify geographic points of emerging social tension, utilizing graffiti as an indicator of resistance among youth.  Then I got distracted by other engagements.

But I've recently returned my attention to the matter and have started running the analysis.  The map below reveals one of the recent findings of the project, over lapping the linguistic distribution of messages with the ethnic and political content.  The yellow identifies graffiti that is purely written in Farsi, while the Red concentrations identify concentrations of Fari and Pashto.  Farsi is the dominant spoken language in Kabul, and it is interesting to note that Pashto graffiti is never isolated, but always located amid dense clusters of Farsi. (Note: If the embedded map does not load in your feedreader, please go to the original article source here).




The green squares signify locations of contentious rhetoric.  Many of these messages are critical of ethnic groups, are xenophobic, or criticize the government.  Some of these messages support the Taliban.

A rare example of protest graffiti in English. SSLLC 2012.
The points on the map where a green square sits on top of a red section identifies sections where there is a linguistic friction combined with an overtly political message.  Based on these two variables, the intersection of the green square and the red cluster are areas of highest social friction.

Notably, some of these locations have been known points of resistance in the past.  The cluster in the lower left (just above Qala-e-Shada) hosts Kabul University and a public park that is frequently the site of protest rallies.  The two square situated directly below the "U" in "Kabul" was the site of the Ashura suicide bombing in 2011.  It is possible that using only these two variables, that the current finding is mere coincidence.  But as several classifications of data remain , it will be possible to drill down with continued analysis.

I'm particularly curious about the concentrations that are not presently linked to a previous act of protest or violence.  What about these sites creates such a hostile and turbulent environment?  As all the data was collected in March/April of 2013, I am now running the project again.  I am using the same techniques and plan to capture the same size data-set.  I hope to see how the pattern changes, and more importantly, I hope to see where it stays the same.  By identifying the location of sites that do not change, then I can follow up with closer qualitative investigation of those sites.  Also by running the study again, I hope to to get closer to a better question - not where will points of insecurity or protest occur, but when?


Crafting Cities Truly Responsive to Climate Change

The Original Green Roof. Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2013.

I know very little about climate change.   I understand the basic arguments, and having worked at the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences a few years ago, I am familiar with some of the recent research.  But as an urban planner, I admit that I know very little about the role of climate change in urban development.   I often feel like I'm woefully ignorant on the subject because I do not know how to measure emissions from traffic densities or how to determine the carbon offsets from an infrastructure project.  It turns out I'm not alone, most planners can't do this, including many who label themselves as sustainability experts.  Whats the deal?

Yesterday during a Skype meeting with a US nonprofit about an urban violence project, climate change was mentioned and it made me wonder, why do so many of us urban professionals know so little about this subject?  It is a significant variable in the health and function of cities, it has tremendous long-term implications, and it is particularly relavent for coastal settlements.  It is also frequently discussed in terms of conflict, sustainability and the debate over environmental refugees,  although that case is something of a misnomer.  Food production and national security are frequently mentioned in the conversation.  From the quantity of channels in which climate change is discussed, we can evaluate it as a significant variable, but then I must ask myself, after all these years of school and work, why isn't it a standard part of every conversation, plan, and most projects?


Why climate change is ignored or under utilized in urban planning and development

1. Part of the answer has to do with the nature of the variable. Climate is a huge phenomenon that cannot, as a whole, be directly observed.  Consequently, it is unwieldy.  Climate science tends to rely upon large quantities of data, collected and combed by climate experts.  The data and the outcomes are also designed for use by climatologists, not necessarily for urbanists or social scientists, and consequently there is a disconnect between the data and the populations that could create solutions from it.   Greater partnership between policy makers, specialists, and climate researchers could lead to more directly useful information.

2. Previous social science research concerning climate change has been poorly defined and messy.  I'm sure there are plenty exceptions, but looking through google scholar, I found that so many projects pursue participatory or perception-based methods that also mix climate change with other issues such as public health risks.  

Take for example this page for community health concerning soil and food.  This project advocates a community based research process in Malawi among farmers to develop response strategies to climate change.  That sounds good, except it also manages to include HIV awareness/prevention, and the methodology "focusses on gender/age inequalities."  I can only imagine that the research designer was trying to diversify the project in order to acquire funding, because such a schizophrenic research design will prompt a blurred mess of outcomes.  I appreciate the complexity intended in the study, but keeping specific to goal (adaption strategies for climate change among farmers in Malawi) provides a higher probability of success for those farmers.  Aids education, gender, and age, do not need to be a part of the project and only creates distractions.

3.  Social science research and development projects that take a strategically proactive approach to climate change tend to have a rural focus (such as this project with farmers in Ethiopia).   It makes perfect sense to work with farmers to experiment with strategies to contend with climate change in coming seasons.  Excellent.  But how does this translate to urban environments?

There are plenty of examples of climate change and poor urban planning causing problems (such as flooding in Argentina), but what about the successes?  Current "best practices" tend to focus on novel solutions such as green rooftops and house boats.  Seriously?  This sort of approach to problem solving perfectly exemplifies everything that is wrong with the field of urban planning.  May I ask, how many square meters of roof-top gardens in a city/state/nation/world will be required to reduce carbon emissions by 2% in a year?  How many liters of water collected in rain gardens will produce the same impact?  This is not a legitimate approach.  It is ad-hoc and based more in good will than good thinking.

Also, many of the messages propagated among urban-dwellers is to conserve - recycle, turn off lights, use public transit -  or to rely upon technology (such as sustainable architecture and infrastructure) rather than to individually experiment with livelihood strategies to produce environmentally advantageous outcomes.  I'm not a big believer in social programming for baseline behavior change, and the notion of experimentation has more pro-active connotations than the emphasis on reduction.  While there are likely some urban projects that take the proactive, experimental, and strategic approach, these are in an extreme minority.  In the meanwhile the public sphere is dominated by media messages constructing conservation as long-term responsibility, not messages of environmentally-positive production because of urgent necessity.

4. There is a lack of concise research methods for urbanists and social science researchers.  I've spent the last 24 hours searching for published, quality research concerning urban settlements and climate change at the individual, human scale (not the sort of research pursued by climatologists).  There are many papers concerned with participatory action research methods with farmers to research the affects of climate change on their livelihood and to develop solutions to contend with this.  Where is the same kind of for cities?  It must be out there somewhere, but its not omnipresent, and that is a problem since cities generate the greatest quantity of carbon emissions.  It seems feasible to use the same strategy for cities, but we can assume that the impact will be more difficult for urban residents to discern. 


The Outcome

If climate change is to become a valid concern for urban populations, it must be removed from the abstract and exposed among the lived day-to-day reality of the population.  We must first ask ourselves what sort of clear and tangible evidence for climate change exists within our cities and neighborhoods. The best social research and work today seems focussed on developing coping strategies for the victims of climate change, such as rural African villages and farmers.  But this social research needs to happen in our cities and suburbs as well, not because urban dwellers are to be positioned as the evil propagators of climate change, but because without a proactive approach, they will be the future victims.

We also must drop the fantasy assumptions about the so-called solutions on land use and green space to which we presently adhere.  Upon identifying the specific incidents of climate change, we can create relavent methods within our communities to internalize the evidence to then develop strategic, pro-active responses to contend with the harsh reality of climate change.  Furthermore our responses must contain a series of relavent tactics that can a) quantitively reduce carbon emissions in our cities and b) develop coping strategies for the negative impact of climate change.  

While we strive to do our part to mitigate or even reverse the trend of global temperature increase, we must also accept that temperature change has a longstanding history and will continue, although at a slower pace.  Our cities need not be prepared for climate change, but accept the responsibility in the present tense and thus become responsive.  Whereas preparation implies a coming event, response suggests a current and ongoing engagement.  

City. Text. Laboratory

A small sample from my research on graffiti for social analysis in conflict zones. Sutika Sipus 2013.

Any casual reader of this blog is familiar with my obsession over social research methods.  Not only am I fascinated by the idea of measuring and quantifying the intangible, but I also question the general viability of most social research instruments.  In the areas that I work, it is not practical to conduct standard surveys or the usual data collection procedures do to security threats, so consequently I'm somewhat critical of the information that does surface.  

For the last two years I've used Kabul as an urban laboratory to experiment with alternative methods of social analysis, and one project has been the cataloguing of graffiti and social imagery throughout the city.  Almost one year ago I wrote about initial explorations in this area of critical cartography.  

More recently I've been able to break newer ground by merging this technique with other methods.  I will be presenting my work this weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  I can't divulge much on the details till the finished publication comes out next fall but anyone in the Boston area is welcome to attend the conference MIT8: Public Media, Private Media.   

For anyone that can't make it, I do have a semi-related book chapter coming out in August (just submitted final draft yesterday!) and hope to publish on this particular project in the late fall.   Its been a busy last couple weeks, and the year is just getting started!

Scaling Tools and Hacking Methods for Urban Development and Reconstruction



Case 1:
Last year an organization analyzing tribal conflicts in the Pashtun belt hired an outside consultant.  He had never been to Afghanistan before, had no familiarity with the issues, but had instead spent a lifetime studying patterns of gang violence in South and Central America.   I was optimistic about his role in the project as I hoped he would bring some keen insight and a new point of view that would revolutionize everyone's understanding of systematic violence in Afghanistan, creating a pathway toward viable solutions.   In contrast, the consultant made a series of irrelevant observations but charged a hefty sum, and left behind only a drained budget and a frustrated research staff.

Case 2:
In the latter years of Albert Einstein, he became obsessed with discovering GUT, the "grand unified theory" that will provide a scientific basis to create a total explanation for everything.  He approached the problem by trying to fuse theories on electromagnetism with relativity.  Not only did he fail in this endeavor, but his pursuit of it made him removed from the newer discoveries of his discipline, in particular the new field of quantum physics.  


The Pursuit of Universal Solutions
I mention these two examples as a consequence of a conversation I had last week with a professor from Columbia University. At this moment I'm loaded down with some deadlines over the next few days so I have little time to spare, but with  a new project on the horizon, I called her hoping to find the cliffs-notes version on relevant industry toolkits and best-practices to save time and ensure success.  Surprisingly, she didn't really have any answers for me.   

Initially I was annoyed, as I'm one forever interested in particular issues rather than specific geographies, and thus have a compulsion to study broad trends to glean useful cross-disciplinary and cross-geographic kernels of knowledge.  I too would likely have hired the Latin American violence expert for the project in Afghanistan.  In my own practice, I make a point to not be geographically specific in my abilities.  Yet over the last few days, my ideology has begun to shift.  Universality is a myth.  

Institutions are forever trying to build toolkits to bolster resilience, establish sustainability, or ensure economic development.  Development interventions, such as technology and business incubators for economic growth are often formulaic.  Certainly these projects can succeed, but how often and under what conditions?  While these are valuable tools, one of the first rules of carpentry is to use the right tool for the job, so we must ask, are these the best tools available?  If they are the only tools, then we need to modify the tools we have to better fit the tasks at hand.

When I was a graduate student, I spent years examining the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for shelter creation within protracted refugee settlements.  Sphere outlines methods for disaster relief and reconstruction, making it a fairly useful tool for cross-coordination among stakeholders and relief organizations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  At the time, I questioned if it was well suited for upgrading in displacement camps that had been in place for decades since the tool is also used in that manner by some ngos.  After conducting extensive field work in Dadaab Camps of eastern Kenya, I learned that Sphere failed to fully account or accomodate the complex socio-economic mechanisms that developed overtime within the camps.  Consequently interventions crafted with Sphere, when applied to long-term settlements, were foreign and arbitrary to the matured local systems.  

Nowadays I question if the very essence of Sphere, as a framework designed for widespread and global application is perhaps entirely flawed upon conception.  While a tsunami will wreak the same kind of damage anywhere in the world, the levels of preparedness, the available social capital, and the legal structures in place will differ dramatically.  Within the current Sphere guidelines, it informs actors to examine and utilize local laws and customs but it does not explain how to do so.  How does this guidance, which is painstakingly obvious, actually helpful?  Rather than construct a universal Sphere, why not begin crafting Sphere guidelines at the country-level, so that all laws and mechanisms can be accounted and introduced in greater detail?  This will not work perfectly and an iterative process is also necessary on the ground, yet it will likely work better than the Sphere guidelines we have at the present.

Rather than focusing on the universality of our outcomes, we can better ensure our outcomes by refining the precision of our tools.  Are all intervention and research methods applicable anywhere?  One might initially think so, given that these methods are empirically designed.  Yet I would say otherwise.  Hence one cannot effectively conduct standard social research in hostile landscapes.  Due to the limitations imposed, the tools can become diluted to the point of uselessness.  For example, In Afghanistan, I would go so far as to say that all social research is flawed on account that it is "perception-based," which is nothing but a delicate phrase to describe indeterminable validity.   

Researchers working in Kandahar and other regions cannot carry any mobile technology to assist in data collection.  Nor can they probe deeply in local issues (at risk of becoming part of the problem) or maintain strict oversight of the data-collection staff.  Individuals who are paid to provide responses have no incentive to be accurate or tell the truth.  Notably, people are often questioned on issues to which they have no direct knowledge or experience, so they can only provide assumptions or guesses as answers.  

Conflict is not the only variable that shapes the effectiveness of our research tools and methodologies.  Language, social conventions, and insider-outsider relations all shape our abilities to do our jobs as researchers, planners, or policy-makers. This isn't new information.  These are typically the concerns discussed with an "Intro to Anthropology Class," but it is essential to question the foundations of our disciplines so as to avoid the pitfalls of chasing after a grand unified theory when the data itself is evident of something entirely different.