Knowing the place: Key methods and processes for evaluator engagement in environmental sustainability evaluations

Dune covered in plants with sandy area almost completely covered with washed up plastic and general waste. Footprint Evaluation logo and 'Knowing the place - methods and processes' banner overlays the photo

This blog is part of the Footprint Evaluation Initiative, a collaboration that aims to embed consideration of environmental sustainability in all evaluations and monitoring systems.

Understanding the 'place' - be it the site of a project, program, strategy or policy - is critical when addressing environmental sustainability as part of an evaluation.

The place, in all its diverse dimensions - physical, social, economic, cultural, and beyond - often intersects with elements from other locations, creating a complex web of interactions. These intricacies play a key role in shaping the impact (positive and negative) of any intervention implemented.

As Andy Rowe explains in his recent blog, the physical location, its characteristics, and its social and environmental context are crucial to the outcomes and impacts of an intervention. The place isn't merely a setting or a source of natural resources, and as such, it needs to be incorporated as a core element in the evaluation process.

So how can evaluators 'know the place'? How can we gather the necessary data to understand the local setting of an evaluand? In this blog post, we'll explore a selection of methods and processes to accomplish this.

Methods and processes to get to 'know the place'

Site visits/observation and local partnerships

Site visits and observation are invaluable tools for evaluators, allowing for first-hand experience of the local setting. By being physically present, evaluators can directly observe the environmental conditions, community-environment interactions, and other subtle nuances that form the context of the evaluand. This immersion can provide rich qualitative data that might not be readily discernible or communicable through other forms of data collection. Read more about site visits and observation.

The benefits of being physically present in a place are substantial: nuances of the environment and social interactions can be perceived more completely, leading to deeper insights. Physical presence can also aid in establishing rapport with local community members and stakeholders, facilitating more open and comprehensive communication.

All too often, intervention-centric evaluation processes can overlook the nuanced effects experienced by those with less power or authority, including the natural systems themselves. When feasible, active engagement with a wide range of interests can shed light on the many dimensions of the intervention, especially its reach within and across systems. Visiting the site can assist in identifying the different interests and pinpointing the elements of natural systems that are most relevant to the evaluation. It offers a front-row seat to observe the interactions between human and natural systems and to engage with diverse perspectives. Such a visit also provides the opportunity to learn from the wisdom of Indigenous and local communities and others, fostering a more holistic understanding of the place – something that Larry Bremner and Linda Lee discuss in their blog ‘Knowing place through story’.

However, it's not always possible to physically visit a place, particularly in a global context with diverse and potentially remote locations. As the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown, travel even within a country or region can be disrupted. In such cases, technology can help to at least partially bridge this gap. Virtual site tours, enabled by technology such as smartphones, 360-degree cameras, VR headsets, and video conferencing, are becoming increasingly viable. While this won’t provide the full experience and benefits of in-person visits, this can provide a detailed view of a location and its features, giving evaluators a sense of the place without being physically present.

Partnering with local organizations or individuals is incredibly beneficial – both when able to visit a site in person, and when restricted to virtual visits. Local partners, who have a deeper understanding of the area's environmental and social context, can conduct fieldwork and provide valuable insights. They can perform interviews, facilitate focus groups, take photographs, and perform other data collection tasks.

Transect walk

A transect walk involves a systematic walk along a defined path across a community or landscape, observing, asking, listening, and learning. It's a direct method for evaluators to engage with the environment and gain insights from locals about environmental features and changes. Learn more about transect walks.

When it's not possible to conduct a transect walk in person, local partners could potentially undertake this task. The walk could be recorded using a camera or smartphone, and the footage could be shared with the evaluator for analysis. Alternatively, if available, a local drone operator could provide a bird’s-eye view of the landscape.

Talking to community members

Qualitative data collection methods, such as focus groups, interviews, and participatory video, can help evaluators 'know the place'. These methods facilitate active engagement with the local community, enabling a richer, more nuanced understanding of the local environmental context. Online platforms offer a host of options to conduct such activities virtually.

Rich pictures and sketch mapping

Sketch mapping is a participatory method that involves the local community in creating a map of their area. It's a powerful way to engage stakeholders, capture local knowledge, and understand perceived environmental concerns. Further details are available on our sketch mapping method page.

Rich pictures are a visual tool that helps evaluators to understand complex situations. They can highlight relationships, processes, conflicts, and potential outcomes within a specific setting. In the context of environmental sustainability, a rich picture could depict the ecosystem, the local community, and how they interact. Find more information about rich pictures.

These methods can be adapted for remote use by leveraging digital tools. Participants can use drawing software to create rich pictures or sketch maps, and then share them with the evaluator via digital platforms. Similarly, an online collaborative platform could be used to create a group rich picture or sketch map in real-time. A lower-tech way of adapting this is to physically create the drawing on paper, and then share a photo of this via email.

Seasonal calendars

Seasonal calendars are participatory tools that capture variations in climate and ecological factors over a year. They help evaluators understand the dynamics of the environment and how these affect and are affected by the local community. Read more about seasonal calendars.

These can be created remotely by using digital tools and involving local community members through online workshops or interviews. Information about seasonal changes could be collected through online surveys, telephonic interviews, or digital focus groups. There may also be existing seasonal calendars that exist for a location that you can draw upon.

Photovoice and participatory video

Photovoice is a method where people capture their environment and experiences through photographs, then discuss them in group settings. It can be a profound way to capture the lived experience of environmental sustainability issues, although ethical considerations including safety and consent must be considered. Learn more about photovoice.

Participatory video is another powerful tool, where community members create their own films to express their perspectives. This method not only provides insight into the community's viewpoint but also empowers community members by involving them actively in the evaluation process. Their films can highlight aspects of the place and the intervention that may otherwise remain unnoticed.

In a virtual environment, where participants have access or can be given access to adequate technology (e.g., a smartphone or digital camera), participants can take video and photographs themselves and share these with the evaluator through digital platforms. Following this, interviews or group discussions to interpret the outputs can be conducted remotely via video conferencing tools.

GIS mapping and interactive mapping

Geographic Information System (GIS) Mapping is an excellent way of understanding the physical and environmental aspects of a location. It allows evaluators to visualise, question, and interpret data to understand patterns, trends, and relationships in the geographic space. For instance, GIS mapping can be used to assess deforestation rates or water resource availability in a specific area. Check out some examples and guides on GIS mapping. For an example of how this has been used in a Footprint Evaluation, check out this case study: [Uganda case study report]
Interactive mapping adds another level of depth to GIS mapping. It's a dynamic tool that enables users to explore and manipulate the data in real-time. This could involve adjusting parameters to see how different scenarios might impact the environment or community. Learn more about interactive mapping.

Both of these techniques inherently allow for remote use as they involve digital software to create, analyze, and visualize spatial data. Evaluators can use publicly available or purchased datasets, or data provided by local partners for these types of mapping.

Digital platforms and social media

Digital platforms and social media can provide real-time information about the site. Evaluators can use platforms like Google Earth to view the location remotely. Social media platforms can provide insights into community perspectives and activities related to environmental sustainability.

Remote sensing

Remote sensing involves the collection of data about an object or area from a distance, usually through satellite or high-altitude aircraft. It's a valuable tool for environmental monitoring and mapping, especially in inaccessible locations. Data collected through remote sensing can be processed and analyzed to provide insights about land cover, vegetation health, water quality, and more.

Review of similar locations

Reviewing research and evaluations from similar locations can provide rich, contextual data. If the evaluand is in a location that shares similar environmental, cultural, or socioeconomic factors with an area that has already been studied, existing data from the analogous location can be useful in understanding potential nexus connections and impacts. For instance, if you're evaluating the impact of a coastal conservation project and cannot visit the site, you could examine the results of similar projects in comparable coastal environments.

A note on adapting and using remote methods

While adapting these methods for remote use might present challenges, it can also provide opportunities. Using digital tools can facilitate broader engagement, allow for more flexible timing, and potentially increase the accessibility of the evaluation process. As always, however, it's crucial to consider potential digital divides and strive to ensure the process is inclusive and equitable.

What other methods have you used to ‘know the place’? Join the Footprint Evaluation Community discussion group and let us know!

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