Wrapping up CoAct Riachuelo’s 2020: Co-designing a Citizen Social Science project in the COVID-19 context in Argentina

Wrapping up CoAct Riachuelo’s 2020: Co-designing a Citizen Social Science project in the COVID-19 context in Argentina

Guillermina Actis and Malena Velarde, January 20th, 2021.

Research Center for Transformation, National University of San Martin (CENIT/UNSAM).

For the past year, our Research and Innovation (R&I) Action has connected a network of actors from the academia, public policy areas, and the different communities living and working in the Matanza Riachuelo basin in Argentina. Through various activities, our multi-institutional coordinating team from UNSAM and FARN has worked towards co-defining both the main topics and the research purpose of the citizen science platform to be built by the project. Here we reflect on the main milestones of 2020 and the challenges ahead.

March in Buenos Aires is a time of new beginnings. The typical hustle and bustle of the daily commute fill the streets again, and children wearing white smocks —the uniforms students wear to attend public schools— are seen walking down the streets after the summer holidays. Expectations for the year-ahead are high as we feel we still have time to meet them. March 2020 was different: on the 20th, Argentina’s government established a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Buenos Aires streets, parks and classrooms became suddenly empty and silent; meetings and gatherings had to be canceled, and many family houses became workspaces.

CoAct Riachuelo team members had to switch FARN’s office meetings to online calls in order to keep planning the year’s activities. As we did not know what would come next or if lockdown would be extended, we decided, at first, to postpone all face-to-face activities. We took advantage of that time to introduce the necessary innovations to address the original goals in this uncertain context. We established fortnight Jitsi meetings to discuss and coordinate the project’s activities and a reading circle to share and comment on the citizen science literature. Our CoAct partners in Europe gave valuable support throughout the process. Every Tuesday, during CoAct’s informal meetings, we reflect together on how to improve procedures, such as informed consent, to meet the virtual interview requirements.

Citizen Social Science claims the possibility of expanding the scope of intervention in the research process of stakeholders commonly addressed as objects of the inquiry. By allowing relevant actors to be part of some of the key project’s definitions, we attempt to further open up the research process beyond the data collection phases and results’ communication. CoAct’s R&I Actions seek to address wicked problems that are affecting concrete communities. Their discussions, knowledge, and direct experiences are considered relevant. The different teams will explore ways of co-researching with them as well as the benefits and obstacles of such practices. Strategies to conduct transdisciplinary research become a central feature to be developed.

With this perspective/framework we approached the relevant actors, such as policymakers, scientists, and CSO members through semi-structured Google Meet interviews to discuss their experiences and activities in the Matanza Riachuelo basin. Through these interviews, we managed to map the potential synergies and topics of interest.

CoAct Riachuelo implemented innovative ways to collectively discuss and share these stakeholders’ expectations, consequently applying a participatory approach to defining the platform’s purpose and design. Creating a virtual framework for such interactions and creating new procedures to assure informed consent obtainment for the different activities were the 2020 main efforts.

Aiming at progressively constituting the project as an “agora” where socially robust knowledge is co-produced (Nowotny, 2003), we addressed the communities’ perspectives through online micro-workshops facilitated by the art-based group Iconoclasistas. This format allowed us to meet groups of 5 to 7 people to collectively discuss the problems they face in particular areas of the basin as well as the concrete actions and alliances that they produce to deal with them.

As a result of the interviews and micro-workshops, we e-met 57 people. Most of them became part of the CoAct Riachuelo Knowledge Coalition. Defining this coalition as a network of actors that continuously grows, and its members being enabled to intervene throughout the project’s research and innovation cycle according to their expertise, interests and availability, was a key strategy (Arza et. al., forthcoming). This flexible approach allowed us to sustain the project in these uncertain times.

Some Knowledge Coalition members attended the first co-design workshop in October. This time, participants had the opportunity to comment on our findings associated with the problems reported as relevant and to more directly discuss the implications of the currently available digital information about the basin and the potential uses and obstacles that our platform could face. As with any participatory process, the debates’ codification and discussions were a challenge. Our approach consisted of notetaking while the participants shared their thoughts both aloud and stuck post-it notes on a shared Jamboard.

On November 29th, Argentina’s government lifted some restrictions in Buenos Aires and we were able to conduct a face-to-face micro workshop in the Matanza Riachuelo basin. After this last activity, we decided to systematically reflect on all year activities results, organizing an internal workshop for FARN, UNSAM and M7Red,the organization in charge of the platform technological development, in order to share our expectations and clarify the platform’s purposes introduced by the stakeholders. We agreed that the platform should address three main objectives: visualize and share community experiences dealing with socio-environmental problems; produce new information and display the one that already exists to show the basin’s reality;and connect people living in the basin to take collective action.

As we wrapped-up our 2020 activities, we are looking forward to start co-designing the citizen science platform prototype with community actors and Knowledge Coalition members. We expect March to bring new uncertainties as COVID cases continue to grow and new restrictions on social gatherings have been implemented. However, we now can take advantage of the participatory virtual framework we built in 2020 to address the year-ahead and pursue the citizen platform development.

-Arza, Actis, Marchegiani, Velarde, Cane, Buchsbaum, Swistun (to be approved), Deliverable 5.1 Report on Knowledge Coalition building. Environmental Justice, CoAct.
-Nowotny (2003), Democratising expertise and socially robust knowledge, Science and Public Policy, Volume 30, Issue 3, Pages 151–156, https://doi.org/10.3152/147154303781780461