The ASSETS Project – a Modeller’s perspective

I feel I’ve spent the last five years of my life attempting to find a happy compromise, or rather a “happy marriage”, between work, and my personal interests both, in environment conservation and participatory project work. Now I believe this search has come to an end: I’ve recently being granted just what I was looking for through a post-doc position at the Basque Research Centre for Climate Change (BC3) in Spain. This post is embedded in the ASSETS project of which BC3 is a partner. Reflecting on the ups and downs that this has brought about in my life, I think that the overarching challenge relates to the varied nature of the knowledge that must be modelled in order to enable the rest of the ASSETS team to develop applications that will support decision making processes to benefit the living conditions of communities.
As a software and requirements engineer, I am well aware of the need to understand and capture the requirements of the potential users of any application under development. This holds for modellers too, at least for those hoping to build models that provide a reliable representation of the reality they want to model. Only then the resulting application will have any chance of success, assuming we measure success by the number of times the models are used in practice.
In the second half of September I was able to participate in the ASSETS Malawi workshop. It provided me with a unique opportunity to build and improve the requirements specification document which I begun generating since joining Ferdinando Villa in Bilbao, last July. In addition to having the pleasure of meeting and collaborating with the rest of the ASSETS team in the same location; it has enabled me to gain a much better understanding of the project requirements. Furthermore, it has given me first-hand experience on the complex decision making processes, that a bunch of sociologists, economists, geographers and natural scientists, setting off on a creative and collaborative path are able to generate, especially when they aim to deliver solutions that are not just innovative, but also practical and useful to the local, rural community which has kindly granted them their time and resources.
The discussions held throughout the two weeks provided a good indication that a lot of the ground-work linked to the data collection stage of any modelling task has already being covered. Both in Malawi and Colombia, there are various repositories which provide an excellent starting point for developing the models that are necessary, once the bureaucratic hurdles linked to gaining right of access to them have being overcome. Picking up the details to model the interactions taking place between the users, sources, and sinks of the relevant ecosystem services (ES) workflows, within each and between the ES, is harder. There are many unanswered questions. One for example is the importance of sacred sites used by the local community for aesthetic purposes when compared to its importance as a source of food, which of the two should prevail? Participatory rural appraisals (PRA) and the various consultation tasks planned at community level during the first stages of the ASSETS project should provide this kind of data, and together with the expertise of the team members should enable the generation of a correct and reliable set of models.
Finally, it was also really good to discover, that sociologists, geographers, natural scientists, and engineers from many corners of the world have a common understanding on the importance of spreading the effort between work and play. As far as play is concerned, we agree on a great number of things which came as a great relief! Nothing like finishing off a hard day of work sampling a superb Scottish Single malt!
Equally rewarding was to discover that a measly engineer was able to hold her own in the midst of a set of fit, weathered and experienced geographers and natural scientists.
The ASSETS team, through its multi-disciplinary and multi-geographical approach is providing a wealth of knowledge and experience in addition to a cultural kaleidoscope covering a reasonable section of the world, i.e. South Africa, Malawi, Colombia, USA, Peru, Italy, Germany, Venezuela, and I hope to make the most of this unique set of circumstances for the duration of the project!

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