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Working remotely – working collaboratively

Perspectives from SLURC staff and interns on the 2020 fieldwork undertaken in Freetown under COVID-19 as part of the DPU MSc ESD/SLURC Learning Alliance

By SLURC, the DPU MSc ESD team, and KNOW


How does co-learning work to develop essential capacities to act towards socio-environmental justice? What is the scope to coproduce actionable knowledge when working remotely?

Since 2017, the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) and the Practice Module of the MSc programme on Environment and Sustainable Development (ESD) at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU-UCL) have formed a Learning Alliance that aims to co-produce knowledge for transformative action towards a socially and environmentally just Freetown. Led by Braima Koroma and Joseph Macarthy at SLURC and Adriana Allen and Rita Lambert at DPU, the alliance seeks to bring early career urban practitioners from Sierra Leone and elsewhere around the world to work collaboratively and learn from each other. Since 2019, the Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality (KNOW) programme (Work Package 5) has supported this initiative, by documenting the learning trajectories of staff and interns participating in the alliance and by supporting their reflection on what capacities are crucial to advance urban equality. In April/May 2020, the Learning Alliance found itself challenged to find new and innovative ways of collaborating to conduct remote fieldwork during the Covid-19 crisis. The MSc students worked in six teams, each accompanied by a member of DPU and SLURC staff as well as a local intern, to examine six potential pathways towards socio-environmental justice in Freetown through: Land and Shelter Tenure Security, Enhanced Mobility, Sustainable and Equitable Energy Transitioning, Integrated Solid Waste Management, Decentralised Water and Sanitation Infrastructure and Services, and Food Security through Urban Agriculture.

You can access the collaborative outputs produced by each of the six teams here.

Below are the post-fieldtrip reflections from the interns and SLURC facilitators on the challenges and opportunities encountered through this remote collaborative learning experience. For reflections from the students about their fieldwork experiences, please have a look at the MSc ESD’s Insights from Practice blog.


Enhanced Mobility

by Abdulrahman Dukuray (intern)

The DPU MSc ESD/SLURC Learning Alliance was an exciting and adaptive learning exercise. Given the circumstances relating to the global health crisis, this was a novel experience that enhanced my knowledge and understanding of conducting a survey with a team spread across the world.

Working with the mobility group deeply enhanced my knowledge and understanding of how challenges to mobility affect the livelihood conditions of low-income residents and also those actors engaged in the transport and mobility sectors. I learnt from this experience, how multi-stakeholder support, including from the private sector, helps mitigate the livelihood constraints of people living under very poor conditions, who are severely impacted by the harsh constraints that often comes in dealing with crises of this nature. Providing relief support in form of food items and safety equipment to help local residents overcome such challenges is therefore very important.

Additionally, the exercise was quite revealing on the gender constraints of mobility restrictions in public health emergencies such as COVID-19. Also, our findings show that a constructive engagement between the central government, local government, private sector, and informal transport sectors greatly impacts policy choices, compliance, and decision making in complex situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

From an operational aspect, the level of support from SLURC helped me navigate the various constraints, and ultimately allowed me to carry out the exercise in the most effective and efficient manner. In particular, SLURC demonstrated a strong concern for the safety and protection of interns in engaging with the public under such grave health challenges.

The biggest challenge in conducting this work was the public caution and public safety. However, with the various adaptive measures such as remote interviews, social distancing and managing expectations, the project still achieved great results.

Overall, I deem this activity to be hugely successful, with commitment and support from all actors engaged. The DPU students were very understanding and resourceful in utilising available data towards achieving their goal. People from the community, community support staff, SLURC staff, and absolutely everyone involved contributed immensely towards the success of the work. The results were evidently satisfactory, all thanks to each and every one who put in their best effort towards achieving the overall objective of the exercise.


Sustainable and Equitable Energy Transitioning

Above: Intern Henry Bayoh interviews the Head of Renewable Energy at the Ministry of Energy (Photo: SLURC, 2020)

With social distancing being the order of the day, I was selected to work as a research intern. I was assigned to work with the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development (ESD) students, particularly the Sustainable and Equitable Energy Transitioning group, with the support of SLURC staff (Sulaiman Kamara) to understand the nexus between energy (electricity) access, livelihoods and exposure to risks in Susan’s Bay, considering the disadvantageous energy situation that informal settlements faced.

The method used for the research was a bit different and shifted from the normal research design involving face-to-face focus group discussions to phone-based methods using SMS messages or voice calls because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire research was done remotely and involved a week administration of survey questionnaires to public and private sector stakeholders in the energy landscape, as well as residents and business owners with and without energy/electricity access to understand the extent of the prevailing contexts and the roles played by each stakeholder. Other methods used include desk-based research about key stakeholders as well as similar work done in the case study community, phone-based interviews with private sector stakeholders and appointment scheduling with key public/government institutions, sending SMS messages and making voice calls with community representatives. Though challenging, the research method use was overly successful.

Despite the successful conduct of the research, there were tremendous challenges encountered. The spread of COVID-19 had a far-reaching effect on field survey, making it difficult to get people to respond to the survey questions. Government offices were working on an alternative or rotational shift basis to maintain social distancing and curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Susan’s Bay was a hotspot for COVID-19, where social distancing is certainly not possible. In effect, certain interviews were not done in the community, but at strategic locations elsewhere to ensure our safety. Focus group discussions were not done and social interaction on which most field research is based was highly constrained in order to comply with public health regulations and guidelines enacted by the government, which is sometimes frustrating. Additionally, joint interviews with the ESD students could not be possible due to poor internet connection. After series of calls and visits, some government offices could not respond to my survey questionnaires, stating in the nick of time that I should go through the institutional head with a written correspondence, as they just don’t give out information. However, I had no alternative, but to comply just to get the needed information.

In spite of all the challenges, there were certain exciting opportunities of doing a remote research during a pandemic such as finding new forms of interaction with respondents, finding alternative ways of collecting valuable and relevant data, attending regular virtual meetings, and trainings, providing guidance and input with regards what can be achieved practically or realistically within the given timeframe, receiving valuable advice and trainings on action research from DPU staff, and gaining a wider knowledge in the subject matter/area. Thus, I was provided with the necessary wherewithal such as top-up, data bundle, etc. which made the remote work exciting.

During the research process, there were important lessons learned that will be relevant for future endeavours. First, working collaboratively and assigning tasks effectively can help drive tremendous results. Everyone in our group had specific tasks to accomplish. Second, providing timely advice in a flexible manner can motivate people to deliver excellent results in a stressful moment. The DPU staff assigned to our group was always available to respond to questions, make clarifications and check on progress made. Third, maintaining effective communication and providing vital information to stakeholders are key to keeping the remote research going during a pandemic, as they will save cost and time. Fourth, digital platforms and tools enhance the smooth operation of working remotely. Finally, providing necessary support and wherewithal is extremely important for producing desired results. In closing, we must always be ready to adapt and transition to remote working whenever we are faced with a pandemic situation.


Integrated Solid Waste Management

by Mary Sirah Kamara (SLURC staff)

Below: A waste collector at the Kingtom dumpsite. (Photo: SLURC, 2020)

During the 2020 edition of the DPU MSc ESD/SLURC Learning Alliance, students together with SLURC staff Mary Sirah Kamara and intern Musa FM Wullarie aimed to better understand and improve Solid Waste Management practices in Freetown. Several meetings were held via zoom both to prepare the research and conduct the research/data collection itself. Questions were developed by the students and reviewed by the team as a whole and agreed upon before the commencement of the data collection which lasted for a week in the following communities; Crab town, Kolleh town and Grey Bush (CKG) and the Dworzark communities.

The data collection involved interviews through Whatsapp calls with a wide range of community members and groups including Dworzark Households, Dworzark Ward Committee and Community Leader in CKG, the chairman of FEDURP, DESPRO at Dworzark, Scavengers and the leader for Scavengers Association of Kingtom Dumpsite,Tricycle Micro Enterprises such as ENSADO, New England Ville Youths, Leicester Road Waste Management Cooperative, respondents from private companies like MASADA, Le Plastics, Authorities from the Freetown City Council including Sanitation Committee Chairman, Environment and Social Officer.

The advantage of doing remote research compared to face to face data collection is that data collection can be done in a very short time. Furthermore, this year’s research provided the opportunity for more inclusiveness and involvement of SLURC staff and interns compared to the previous years due to having several zoom meetings for discussion at each stage of the work, reviewing of questions, planning and doing sessions together as a team. However, there were challenges too: Availability and location of participants for interviews, level of understanding of survey questions and poor connectivity were difficult to overcome at points.

Despite the above challenges, the team was able to get 100% response rate. Therefore, I conclude that future research can benefit from using a combination of remote and on the ground research methods, despite their challenges.


Decentralised Water and Sanitation Infrastructure and Services

by Michael Garrick (intern) and Abu Conteh (SLURC staff)

Below: Water distribution in Portee (Photo: SLURC 2020)

With the COVID-19 outbreak and its associated travel restrictions and social distancing, remote field research became the only effective and feasible research approach for this year’s DPU MSc ESD/SLURC Learning Alliance field research.

The research tools used were relatively novel to the Sierra Leonean context and to the participating students and interns. With the use of google drive, members in the group prepared interview guides with everyone on the team making real-time comments and inputs. This made planning more straightforward and less time consuming. In order to get as many survey responses as possible within a short period, the team received responses from participants through Google forms and a Facebook survey. However, difficulties arose as not all community respondents were familiar with these platforms, in addition accessing internet data bundles by community residents to complete the surveys was also challenging. Despite this, response rates from communities were reasonable for both research platforms.

In addition, reaching out to community respondents was challenging. Given that researchers weren’t able to go into communities due to the high risk, a community facilitator served as a liaison between community people and the intern. The presence of the community facilitator helped to build trust and allowed participants to engage in the interviews. Some interview sessions however, lasted longer than expected because some interviewees were distracted by other responsibilities during the interview. Some made additional enquiries about the purpose of the interviews before finally consenting to participate, while others turned down our request at the last minute.

The entire research was done within a short period amidst these challenges. Ensuring there is adequate time in the future would be useful for such a research approach. Also, interpreting the body language of participants and communicating this with other researchers who weren’t present was a very useful skill used by the intern.


Food Security Through Urban Agriculture

by Amadu Labor and Hawanatu Bangura (both SLURC staff)

Above: Amadu Labor and MSc students conducting interviews on urban agriculture (Photo: SLURC 2020)

Doing online research for the first time using a mixed-methods approach came with challenges and opportunities. Challenges included delays in sharing information due to internet connectivity issues which was minimised by working from a shared cloud drive. This ensured any upload or edits made would synchronise when there was a stable internet connection.

Another challenge was having face-to-face meetings and establishing relationships with stakeholders in peri-urban communities amidst the social distancing regulations. We were able to navigate around this by doing a scoping study to determine and map key stakeholders through whom we created links with a range of participants from different farming associations within the urban and peri-urban communities.

In conclusion, being part of the DPU MSc ESD/SLURC Learning Alliance was a new and enriching experience for us. Despite our knowledge and experiences in field research, we found that this was a period of learning and capacity building for us.


Co-learning through remote fieldwork

Engaging ethically and safely during the Covid-19 crisis has been paramount for conducting collaborative fieldwork without jeopardising the health of interns, staff as well as interviewed institutional representatives and community members. Local mobility restrictions, frequently changing safety measures as well as shifting priorities in responses to the crisis were amongst the major challenges that demanded high flexibility and lead to substantial adaptations of the groups’ initial research plans.

The reflections from interns and SLURC staff have highlighted many innovative ways of engaging with research participants throughout the remote research process. For example, a renewed engagement with community facilitators has been important to create relations of social proximity despite physical distances. Their bridging role between institutions and communities has been fundamental for explaining the purpose of the research and the Learning Alliance, setting clear expectations of contributions and outputs, and facilitating access to digital communication infrastructure to conduct interviews and surveys.

Moreover, the process of designing and conducting research collaboratively in remote teams has stimulated a rich co-learning processes amidst all challenges. As Mary Kamara highlighted, iterative processes of reflection in the team of interns, students and staff also foregrounded the potential for deepening collaboration and making the entire fieldwork process more inclusive and equitable – including the design and formulation of research questions, the selection of research participants, development of methods and initial analyses of results.

The above reflections reveal a range of capacities that are fundamental for working remotely but collaboratively to enhance the capacities of young urban practitioners to advance transformative change. Such capacities include technical skills like data management and the use of online digital tools, but also capacities to negotiate relationships, to make ethical decisions under uncertain conditions, and to be innovative and creative in responding to unexpected obstacles. As global dynamics of collaborations are drastically shifting towards remote working methods - both due to the pandemic and its social and economic repercussions, but also as a means to curtail travel CO2 emissions - now more than ever we need to reflect collectively of the challenges and opportunities that unfold through different ways of working and learning together.


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