Lessons learned

Unfortunately this week I have nothing to report on the data collection front. Last week at the UA event  I was able to remind some survey participants to send me their missing data but I haven’t gotten any emails or new surveys booked. I thought I would thus take a little time to reflect back on the summer.

How did the summer evolve:

I tried to set up everything “just-right” but in the end I had to adapt to how both my stakeholders and research assistants worked so that I could still get the as much of the information I needed. Contacting stakeholders was hard at the beginning because I was a bit shy. It was also challenging to really get into the “groove” about how to make respondents feel comfortable while also insisting on getting the quantitative numbers (they had the information but they didn’t understand they had it or thought it was way too hard to get it). Both aspects got better over the season but got harder again in the fall. I was (and still trying to) surveying actors who were less organized and enthusiastic (which is probably why they didn’t respond quickly in April) and trying to get missing pieces of data from actors throughout the whole summer.

Each type of UA had its particular challenges. For the business and collective gardens it was great that one person was usually in charge, but they were often busy and had irregular schedules and did not always keep track of production or management as the main goals were social. For community and private gardeners, the hardest was to get initial contact as there isn’t a public record of participants. But once in place, with proper time commitment, we could measure at least the inputs and garden size first-hand with them. It was still hard because even when I provided detailed instructions, I ended up having to probe in person and measure things myself. I must say that the larger farms were much more of a challenge then I thought they would be. The larger farms were perhaps the hardest because of the managers didn’t have much time and records were not organized for easy sharing.They keep records but not systematically good ones, and it was a lot more time consuming than I thought actually get the records (often only paper copies) and to make sense of the records to then extract the information I was looking for.

Slide1Here are my lessons learned:

  1. You really need to call and be quite persistent (while being nice and respectful of course).
  2. There doesn’t seem a magical formula for people to fully answer your questions.
  3.  Data collection takes a lot longer than you hope when you are asking people to answer you.
  4. Technology is your friend but it isn’t always the solution (aka the tablet “situation”)
  5. Managing field assistants is really time consuming.

What would I do different?

For points 1,2, and 3: Honestly I don’t think there is any perfect time or way to ask people for information but I think for farms I would have done data collection in the winter (because they are so swamped during the summer), done data collection with organizations at the end of the summer (not winter because a lot of the people that take care of gardens don’t work year round), and I would have kept the community and private gardeners as is because it was necessary to “collect” the data with them (i.e, looking at fertilizer bags and measuring gardens, and for all info to be fresh in their minds (that was a big reason we did collection for 2013 even though my real reference year was 2012).  I can’t insist enough about actually going to see the fertilizers used and writing down the ratio. I still haven’t come up with any better ideas about how to get people to return my calls or actually answer all my questions though. Perhaps some kind of incentive structure…..

For point 4: I would have just gone with paper survey’s and digitize right after on a normal computer (which is what I ended up doing at the end of the season). Also, back-up really frequently.

For point 5: Check in with field assistants way more than I thought was necessary at the beginning instead of realizing later on things were not done as they should of and having to redo them. I guess I would extent this to collaborators as well if you are relying on them for data collection.


Weekly recap: mid september

Field work is again at a little bit of a standstill. I did have one survey last week (although I am still waiting for follow-up data), and I did get missing data from two other actors. No new interviews this week though. I recontacted all “missing” actors a couple of weeks ago (and some this week again), and have asked people who did take the survey to ask those “missing” people if they would be interested. Alas, nothing new to report. On Friday and Saturday I am going to some local UA events so perhaps I will have a chance for some face-to-face contact with those actors, and face-to-face does seem to be more motivating for participation. I have been working on writing up some of my methods section for the paper I hope to get out of this field work, and working on the Montreal food system P budget because I think I have gotten all the data I am going to get for that part of the paper in the mean time.


Amaranth at the botanical garden. The city had actually banned this plant from community gardens this year but reversed the decision. I have been eating a lot of this delicious cereal (the leaves can also be eaten) since discovering it though the regulation kerfuffle.

Here is a follow-up from last week’s post on science communication. This is one of my new and improved research story lines. It doesn’t get into the specifics of my research but I think the imagery is clearer and people can always ask follow-up questions:

We need phosphorus to grow food and we have a limited about of phosphorus (and to much phosphorus in certain waterways), therefor we need to find ways to better manage phosphorus.

A farmer 200 years ago produced crops and animals and lived on that same land, and would thus recycled everything. But with more people and the industrial revolution, we started to separate crops from animals, and crops and animals from people, who mostly live in cities now, and we can’t recycle waste which is high in essential nutrients like phosphorus. We started to mine phosphorus rocks instead of recycling. Farmers and scientists started realizing this was a problem because the phosphorus applied to fields was getting lost to lakes and the ocean and causing pollution. We then started to put laws and technologies in place to try and reduce over-application and those losses. Then, a few years ago we also saw the price of the phosphorus fertilizers the farmers need increase because only a few countries produce it. We realized that it wasn’t just a problem of pollution, but now a problem of getting enough P to produce food affordably for everyone. We needed to find ways to increase efficiency and increase recycling. We find that by eating less meat, by stopping food waste, and by recycling the waste we do have from food and human and animal manures back to farmers fields we can tackle both problems at once.


cabbages at the botanical garden (I visited again last weekend)

Communicating my research (but not with dance)

As I mentioned last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a science communication and policy engagement training session. Connecting with both the people involved (in person but also via twitter) and the training material has left me reinvigorated (although a little overwhelmed) to continue to explore art-science collaborations and perfect my science writing, presentation, blogging, twittering, and conversational skills. In this post I want to share a little of my experience trying to explain my research and mostly share some really great and inspiring resources.

Let me start with a sadder note and move up from there. Although I had fun, was surprised and discouraged at how poorly I did at engaging my public and clearly and succinctly explaining my work on urban P and UA. I felt like I knew the “engaging” story of P at the global level, but linking it to UA wasn’t actually that easy in 30 seconds or a minute. In fact, one of the journalists told me something along the lines of: I have done stories about urban gardeners and they always come of a little kooky. I still don’t fully why your research is important. This was a very helpful comment and actually something I think about a lot. UA can often be, or be portrayed as, small and anecdotal and very linked to certain world views and beliefs. At the same time, there is good research about impacts of UA (social and ecological) and research about if and how UA maybe part of larger scale sustainability goals. Needless to say I was disappointed with myself that I couldn’t make that point clearly or in an engaging way. Later in the training, I tried to bring anecdotal story-telling in (as it really worked for other participants). I tried starting one version of the story with the recent excitement around “eating local”, then I tried another version centering on the farmer and him/her making decisions about what to put on the field, and I even tried bringing myself into the story by talking about dance and fascination with movement, and how now I study the movement of P. All of them failed to make an exciting link between the very real and pressing issues around P management and the research pieces I am working on.

I feel lucky I got to try all these things out though, because without actually trying and practicing you can’t make changes towards excellence. I am definitely not giving up and I feel like I did learn a lot of great tools. I just haven’t figured out how to make them mine yet. Persistence is key though, and I do feel inspired by others to continue trying. I have done just that this week and I have come up with a few different versions to “my” story.

Here is (well the links to) what is keeping me going and putting things into perspective:

You have to begin somewhere and work on it, and it’s never easy for anyone (to write and be a good communicator to both scientists and the lay audience).  Science is a creative endeavor, even if people don’t always perceive it as such, so I think it is important to communicate our research findings in many ways, but also perhaps relevant to shed light on scientific process and scientists themselves. Central to all three of these tangents is story telling (just perhaps different main characters sometimes) because as humans we like and understand the story form (hey it’s even part of why fame exists). Scientist’s do succeed at finding metaphors and anecdotes to explain their research (here is just one example). There are tools (including the COMPASS model and the CNXN Story, to more informal advice about blogging, poster sessions, and other engagement) to help me (or you) practice these story-telling skills. And finally, there is more than one way to communicate for academics, so I think I will find my niche somewhere.

There really is a world of people who take science communication seriously (with an extremely fun and upbeat attitude) and I am happy I have been introduced to this world more formally.

word cloud based on the frequency the 25 participants in the Liber Ero fellowship used they terms in their final statements about what they got out of our two days of training together.

word cloud based on the frequency the 25 participants in the Liber Ero fellowship used they terms in their final statements about what they got out of our two days of training together.

Weekly recap: beginning of September

IMG_3700  As of today, I have 18 surveys left to do and then another 14 that need additional information from respondents. This week my field assistant was able to get our third interview for one of the community gardens (one more to do now and he will be done with his work), and I was able to interview a very wonderful company managing many gardens on the island in a variety of settings. The meeting with the company owner was really wonderful because we got to talk about the UA movement in Montreal a little more generally and also her motivations and vision with her company. Still, I am feeling a little scared with about 8 weeks to go in my field season and still so many important actors not responding to my many emails and phone messages.


Last week’s meeting for the 7 gardens didn’t go as well as planned. Even though I had been talking to the organizer since April and a few of the schools for 2 months, and every single person had been contacted 3 weeks prior and 3 days prior, they still didn’t have the information. It was really frustrating because they would say it was too much to answer on the spot but if they knew earlier they could have. Well, I did tell them earlier. In addition to this disappointment, only 4 of the 7 garden representatives were present and it will not be possible to do it with the missing gardens as the program is over. It just seems like I haven’t found the “optimal” way for people to easily and fully complete the survey. Going to the garden does help as I can measure everything and hope examples of the inputs used are on-site, but that still isn’t perfect. I did get to visit one of the surveyed gardens, which was good, and also see a few gardens I visited in the spring in the neighborhood (although that doesn’t actually give me data to work with).

On a positive note, today and tomorrow I am taking part in a training fellowship about science communication and outreach (with COMPASS). This should be extremely valuable for my as a scientist in general, but also for this Montreal UA project specifically. As soon as I get a preliminary analysis of my data, I want to put together a one of 2 page bilingual report and send it to all the people who filled the survey out. So far, I think one of the core ideas I need to work on is how to build from an anecdote or example story and then quickly related to the interesting global implications of P and then back down to local solutions. The training has been extremely engaging and I can’t wait to continue tomorrow.


This is a curry plant in a community garden plant. I didn’t know this is what it looked like fresh.