How field work can support big data: award winning paper

Published: 4 May 2021

The American Geographical Society has announced that Ingrid Boas (WUR), Ruben Dahm (Deltares) and David Wrathall (Oregon State University) are selected to receive the ninth Wrigley-Fairchild Prize for their Geographical Review paper "Grounding Big Data on Climate-Induced Human Mobility". This paper was selected as the winner from 34 articles published in Geographical Review that were under consideration for the award. 

Households near a sea dike, Bangladesh (photo by Ingrid Boas)

Checking analysis using big data

“Boas, Dahm, and Wrathall’s article demonstrates how analysis using “big data” can and should be checked against on-the-ground fieldwork, stated editor-in-chief of the Geographical Review, Dr. David Kaplan. Often the patterns and relationships revealed by large data sets are a useful start but are most helpfully supplemented by site visits and interviews. This article helped us understand better just how people use their mobility in the face of climate change.”

Linking fieldwork, cell phones and earth observation

Associate Professor Ingrid Boas from the Wageningen University’s Environmental Policy Group carried out several months of fieldwork in the delta of Bangladesh to examine the relations between human mobility and climate risk. She held many group meetings and interviews with local people to create a deeper understanding of their mobility options and choices during extreme weather events. Together with Ruben Dahm from Deltares and David Wrathall from Oregon State University, she used fieldwork data to check and further delve into an earlier done analysis of climate displacement in the area, using cellular data. They found the cellular data showed something unexpected: no sudden displacement as was assumed in the earlier publication of that data, but instead a well-coordinated strategy by fishers moving to harbor areas to protect and secure their trawlers (fishing boats) from the storm. The fieldwork further found that the area was most at risk of forced immobility in the context of ongoing erosion and the frequency of storms and cyclones. These insights were supported by satellite imagery using the Aquamonitor and Shoreline monitor. The possibility to share and discuss a visualization showing the evolution of the shoreline of the char (island) they were living was very powerful. It stimulated the local community to give rich details of how the shoreline erosion had taken place over time and how they experienced it.

Example of a shoreline evolution video as shown and discussed with the local community. The video illustrates the shoreline evolution near Char Fasson for the period 1984 to 2017. The area is located in the south-eastern part of Bhola Island, Bangladesh. 

On the winning paper Ingrid Boas (first author) said: “Collaborating in this way allowed us to signal misinterpretations in data and to further delve into how climate change, environmental risk and human mobility intersect in ways that we would not have been able to do with our own individual data and methods. The award shows me that working across disciplines is indeed the way forward.”

Ruben Dahm (senior researcher Deltares): “It is a great honor to receive the Wrigley-Fairchild Prize as to me it demonstrates the value Deltares can bring to interdisciplinary research with our expertise on numerical models, data science, and earth observation. By joining our perspectives and knowledge we ultimately contributed to a better understanding of a complex and important issue like climate-induced human mobility. And personally, as a researcher, I find these kinds of collaborations with other disciplines very rewarding.”

Assistant professor David J. Wrathall of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University explained that “the paper is a window into 21st-century field work. We identified some fascinating patterns of human mobility from giant volumes of data, and then we went into the field to understand what really happened. The big, important lesson is that to really know something, we still have to talk to people. Big-data analysis isn’t enough on its own.”

Wrigley-Fairchild Prize

The Wrigley-Fairchild Prize was established in 1994 as a way to promote scholarly writing among scholars. The prize is given every year to the author of the best article and is named for two storied editors of the journal, Gladys Wrigley and Wilma Fairchild, whose combined editorships covered 60 years of publication.

Annual Meeting

The authors will receive their prize during the 2022 annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in New York, end of February 2022.

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