Research on climate migration, and what you can do with it - NRC Guest Blog by Ingrid Boas

Published on
June 15, 2020

This blog post is part of our series of Dutch blog posts on important issues from the field of environmental policy on NRC online.

You can find the original post(in Dutch), published on the NRC blog in May 2020 here. Read the translated text in English directly below.

Research on climate migration- and what you can do with it

Academic research is increasingly expected to have a tangible impact on society. This sounds good, but often quite tricky in practice. I come from the world of political science and policy-related research, which is often linked to policy workshops and policy briefs.

This time I wanted to do something different. My current research is about environmental migrants in Bangladesh and Kenya, and I wanted to do something with and for them. I am looking specifically at how environmental migrants use their phones and social media when making decisions about leaving, staying, returning or moving on in the face of dangerous situations such as a hurricane ravaging their village or floodwaters encroaching upon their home.
That’s what made me think in terms of a social goal: in addition to analysing how phones are used in environmental migration, can the study also ensure a better use of phones vis-à-vis mobility, immobility and migration in dangerous situations?

User profiles
To achieve this, I travelled through Bangladesh with a user experience designer, who designs user experiences for IT solutions. He went everywhere with me: from the rural coastal areas of southern and eastern Bangladesh, affected by storms and erosion, to the busting cities or inland villages where people moved to (sometimes temporarily). By taking part in the research in this way, supplemented by some of our own local workshops, he was able to identify user profiles within the target group, and to document their needs and wishes regarding the use of mobile phones in environmental migration.

I was surprised at how concrete and applicable my research results could be. I’m accustomed to writing long articles about my findings, but not translating them into usable user profiles and user needs – something that is common for the IT world of product development.
The second step was a hackathon, a competition where a bunch of IT people sit down together, work hard and eat lots of pizza so that they can devise software prototypes based on user profiles and user needs. The participants were forty IT students from various universities in Dhaka, assisted by us, BBC Media Action and small innovative IT companies from Dhaka.

We then applied the same idea in Kenya, just before the coronavirus outbreak. We put a dozen IT students and young IT professionals from Nairobi in touch with a dozen shepherds from rural areas who were affected by uncertain rainy seasons and drought. The idea was to convert the user profiles and user needs into concrete ideas for IT solutions.
The hackathons had a vibrant feel to it, with young participants who had the enthusiasm and drive to make the world a better place. It felt a bit like giving a tutorial to students, but much more tangible and therefore involving much more energy and innovation. When the IT students presented the prototypes they were almost euphoric, as if to say: look what our research has produced! They could actually show the prototype of an app that would allow people to use a simple phone to receive important information (via audio) that is being exchanged on social media.

No working app
In the end, the results proved to be less tangible than we had hoped. They didn’t lead to any working apps or prototypes that could be directly applied; the hackathon had been too short for this purpose and more support was needed. But the ideas were certainly there.

The proposed IT solutions centred on making connections between the poorer groups who couldn’t read and write but who had a mobile phone, and people from those same villages who had migrated to cities for study and who therefore were able to read and write and who were active on social media. This put different groups in a better position to help one another and exchange information.

From my perspective as an academic, I found it fascinating to see how concrete and applicable fairly complex social science research can be, even though we still have a lot to learn. Many social scientists, myself included, tend to get bogged down in nuance, in order to avoid working with simplistic assumptions or arriving at conclusions that haven’t been properly thought through. This doesn’t always fit well with having a tangible impact on society.

Ingrid Boas is an associate professor in Wageningen. This research and the hackathon are funded by her NWO Veni project 'Environmental Migration in the Digital Age'. The UX designer in this story is Freek Duynstee, who helped to organise the hackathons.