3. Pilot Project

3.1. Project Goals

The Bering Sea Sub Network is a regional initiative of community-based organizations in Western Alaska and Northeastern Russia. It operates as a distributed network which uses humans as individual, coordinated sensors for local environmental observations throughout the year. The overall goal of the Bering Sea Sub Network (BSSN) is to improve knowledge of the environmental changes occurring in the Bering Sea that enables scientists, arctic communities and governments to predict, plan and respond to these changes.

The objective of the pilot phase was to develop a framework to enable residents in remote and diverse Arctic communities to systematically document observations of physical and social changes occurring in their region and to organize the gathered data in standardized data sets so that potential users (academia, natural resource managers and local residents) could discover them and apply this knowledge in their research and management.

BSSN Addresses Scientific Questions About:

  • The historical and current distribution and properties of economic and subsistence species, as derived from collective indigenous and traditional knowledge.
  • Types of major variables and indicators that can be correlated with western science to develop predictive models based on indigenous and traditional knowledge
  • Spatial and temporal convergence and divergence of community-derived data and western science.

BSSN contributes to the following broader issues:

  • Social awareness in the broader community around the Bering Sea
  • Investments in community-based research and observations
  • Communities’ resilience and adaptation to change
  • A more prominent role for indigenous and traditional knowledge in modern science

3.2. Scope of Work

The pilot phase operated from 2007 to 2009. The main tasks included:

  • Formation of the network components
  • Formalizing agreements with participating communities
  • Developing a survey instrument and refining survey methodology
  • Setting up a system for data processing
  • Developing a communication plan
  • Conducting interviews in the villages
  • Processing completed questionnaires
  • Summarizing data
  • Delivering data summary reports to participating communities

3.2.1. Network Components

BSSN Secretariat is co-located with AIA’s offices. It provides a central location for coordination of all project activities and safe storage of data. The staff consists of the Survey Manager who oversees all aspects of survey administration and data organization and the Senior Project Coordinator who is responsible for communication with village personnel, logistics, and for providing assistance to the communities. Figure 5. BSSN structure.

BSSN Steering Committee (SC), made up of one member from each community, was created to advise the research team on the issues that may be sensitive for their respective villages and on the community relations. These individuals were nominated by community selfgoverning bodies and have such authorities as signing off the release of BSSN reports containing data from their communities. In the future, BSSN SC members will be reviewing outside requests for access to the data from their communities.

Community Research Assistants (CRA) were local residents hired to conduct interviews. They received training and ongoing support from the BSSN Secretariat. In Alaska, CRAs are often active harvesters and not employed in other fields. In Russia, most of the CRA are professionals who are long-term residents in the communities.

3.2.2. Agreements with Participating Communities

In Alaska, BSSN sub-awardees were local Tribal organizations that administered the pilot project in their respective villages by providing logistical support that allowed for the use of office space and bookkeeping services and facilitated necessary staff hiring.

In Russia, the agreements were signed with two nonprofit organizations located in regional centers, one in Petropavlovsk–Kamchtasky and one in Anadyr, to provide overall project activities management in the villages and to serve as fiscal agents for the project in Russia.

3.2.3. Survey Instrument and Methodology

The survey utilized semi-structured interviews. Sampling was purposive and non-random. Survey questionnaires contained open-ended, close-ended and multiple choice questions. All surveys were administered in the interview format. Whenever permission was granted, the interviews were recorded using a digital voice recorder. Questionnaires were filled out by local interviewers to capture exact answers. An electronic version of each interview was sent to the Survey Manager at the BSSN Secretariat, who enters information in the original language, English or Russian, with English translation into the data management programs. Monthly teleconferences with local interviewers are used to provide feedback and to address any problems to assure quality control.

The survey questionnaire was designed to capture:

  • Changes in climate and environmental conditions
  • The abundance and quality of the resource
  • Changes in migration patterns and habitat
  • The effect of changes on the availability of resources, on food supply, and on the livelihood of communities
  • The local knowledge base associated with marine resources:
    • Resource availability
    • Quality of the catch
    • Quality at the time of preparation
    • Quality at the time of consumption
    • Environmental change
    • Shifts or changes in harvesting locations
    • Comparisons between past and present
  • Any observations of unusual occurrences

The survey focused on harvesting events. The survey instrument, entitled “The Bering Sea Coastal Community Observations of Traditional Hunting and Fishing”, consisted of a pre-event questionnaire, post-event questionnaire, and a Manual for Community Research Assistants.

In addition, a short questionnaire was designed specifically for Elders. About 30 elders were interviewed but these interviews are not part of the main sample contained it the BSSN pilot phase data bases. These interviews will be used for a deeper analysis of the gathered data during the second phase of the project. Elders retain long memories of local environmental conditions and through extensive land schooling, so their information may paint stronger image of the changes that have occurred (Alessa et al 2007).

The survey questionnaires are products of collaborative efforts by the research team and community representatives. The drafts were developed at the October 2007 workshop and, after gaining approval from network members, they underwent extensive expert review by consultants at Westat, Maryland, U.S. Cognitive test interviews were conducted in all villages. Three test interviews per village, eighteen totals, were analyzed for comprehensibility of the questions. The final version of the questionnaire in English and Russian was completed and sent to villages in April, 2008.

3.2.4 Survey Data Management

Data management is a key component of this project. The data are being physically entered and stored at the BSSN Secretariat until the time when communities have the capacity to manage and distribute the database.

Confidentiality is one of the main concerns. Sensitive data, such as exact locations of hunting and fishing sites, are safeguarded. Tracking sheets are utilized to disassociate names from surveys. Completed surveys are kept confidential and secure. All data and survey results are the property of BSSN member communities. BSSN will retain full control of the data to the extent permissible by law. The BSSN Steering Committee is charged with handling data access issues on behalf of the communities surveyed.

The BSSN research team and community representatives discussed data ownership issues at length. While it is possible to have a distributed database with individual community data stored at the villages, it was recognized that most of them do not have capacities to maintain such data bases. Until such capacities are developed, the BSSN communities agreed to keep all project data at a centralized place, the BSSN Secretariat, while retaining appropriate data ownership rights.

The data products of the pilot phase of BSSN can be divided into the following categories. The rights of outside agencies and individuals to access these products will vary and are discussed in relation to each category:

  1. Overall Data Summary – This “summary of summaries” consists of the Survey Results Summary shown in Section 6.2 This summary will be widely distributed and has already been presented in various international forums, such as the Arctic Council. Access to this summary has no restrictions.
  2. Community Data Summaries – These summaries are for data specific to each community (Section 6.3.) and as such contain more information about the communities themselves. For this reason each community was requested to review its data report prior to freely disseminating these summaries. As of July 2010 the community data summaries have been reviewed and approved for release to the public by all BSSN pilot phase communities.
  3. Project Databases – The databases of information entered into the SPSS and Nvivo software programs, as well as these databases converted into CSV (Comma Separated Values) format, will be made available only upon formal request and review by the BSSN Steering Committee. This request will consist of identification of the individual or agency making the request, a synopsis of the project that data will be used for, an explanation of how BSSN data will be used, and a description of what data products are expected to be produced. The request will be forwarded to all community representatives of the BSSN Steering Committee whose data will potentially be used and only upon review from each community will the databases be released for use. Requests can be sent to aia@alaska.net and BSSN staff will facilitate the process.
  4. Survey Forms – Paper and electronic versions of the individual survey forms in Microsoft Word, PDF, or RTF (Rich Text) format will be available after a formal request using the procedure outlined above. However, any documents which associate the name of an individual with a particular survey will not be made available at any time.

All data products mentioned above are hosted at the offices of the BSSN Secretariat co-located with the Aleut International Association in Anchorage, Alaska, and are available at www.bssn.net. This storage consists of back-ups on multiple servers, including offsite servers, in the case of electronic data, and secure storage in the case of paper forms. This storage of data will continue for the life of the project and beyond for the foreseeable future. In addition, discussions are currently underway with data management initiatives, such as Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA) and Cooperative Arctic Data and Information Service (CADIS) for long term hosting/preservation of BSSN electronic data. However, any requests for access to data hosted at ELOKA or CADIS will be made through and will be subject to the same protocols as the data hosted at the BSSN offices. When BSSN member communities develop capacities to host their data sets the current arrangement can be converted to a distributed network.

To make BSSN data discoverable metadata records are being submitted to the following:

  • ELOKA
  • CADIS
  • International Polar Year Data and Information Service (IPYDIS)

These metadata records will link with freely available data stored at www.bssn.net, ELOKA, CADIS and to the protocols for the request of other data.

BSSN is committed to making its data available in formats which provide the greatest benefit to the largest number of users. Towards this end BSSN will remain open to new technologies, such as open source formats, and will provide them as they are developed and where applicable to the data produced by BSSN.

Survey Manager Maryann Smith & Togiak CRA Olia Sutton

3.2.5. Communication Plan

Project communication operates on many levels simultaneously, both external and internal.

Internal Communication

With a project as geographically far reaching as BSSN it is essential that project staff in the communities have close communication with the BSSN Secretariat and with their counterparts in other locations. This allows the Community Research Assistants to share successes, discuss problems, and realize that they are part of an international team. This close communication is facilitated by modern electronic communication methods such as, email and Skype, as well as monthly teleconferences between village staff and BSSN personnel in Anchorage. The teleconferences are held separately for Alaskan and Russian village staff to avoid difficulties related to interpreting. Teleconferences notes are then translated into English and Russian and circulated to all BSSN team members.

As has been previously stated, an important principal of BSSN is that participating communities are kept informed about project activities and progress. This is brought about by maintaining close communication with tribal and community organizations that had begun before the project started and continues today and into the foreseeable future. Trips to each community are planned to coincide with meetings of tribal or village administrations whenever possible. This provides opportunities for presentations and progress reports. Each BSSN village has received multiple project updates presented during community meetings. BSSN has also produced printed brochures designed for distribution in the communities in an effort to reach as many residents as possible.

External Communication

Informing the international scientific community at large about the network is also important, and a number of presentations about the project have been made at numerous forums including the following:

  • Arctic Council Meeting, Selfoss, Iceland, May 2004
  • Arctic Council Meeting, Syktyvkar, Russia, April 2006
  • Arctic Observing Network (AON), Boulder, CO USA, March 2007
  • Arctic Observing Network (AON) Meeting, New York, NY, USA, March 2008
  • Berengia Days, Anadyr, Russia, September 2007
  • PAME I, St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada, June 2008
  • SCAR/IASC Open Science Conference, St Petersburg, Russia, July 2008
  • CAFF, Akureiri, Iceland, September 2009
  • AON PI Meeting, Boulder, CO USA, November 2009
  • Arctic Council Meeting, Copenhagen, Denmark, November 2009
  • Oslo IPY Science Conference, Oslo, Norway, June 2010

3.2.6. Survey Administration

Each participating community had an opportunity to review the questionnaires and provide feedback. Village governing bodies – Tribal Councils in Alaska and local Administrations in Russia – gave their approval prior to the beginning of interviews.

The survey targeted experienced harvesters. Respondents were offered compensation for their time, the amount of which is decided by each community. Each interview took about an hour.

Survey interviews took place before and after a harvesting event or fishing season. Trained Community Research Assistants administered individual interviews at a location and time convenient for respondents. Most respondents preferred to be interviewed in an office or other neutral environment. Interviews were recorded (with respondent’s approval) using digital voice recorders, while Community Research Assistants recorded answers in writing.

The project languages are English and Russian. Indigenous languages speakers are accommodated through bilingual Community Research Assistants. Four out of six BSSN villages have people speaking indigenous languages on a daily basis.

3.2.7. Data Processing

The Bering Sea Sub-Network Survey Manager oversees the organization of the survey data coming in from the participating villages and prepares them for analysis. Because the surveys contain both closed and openended questions, the data are managed using research software designed to handle both quantitative and qualitative information.

Community Research Assistants enter written responses into electronic survey forms which are sent, along with the electronic voice recording files, to the BSSN Secretariat office in Anchorage, Alaska. Hard-copy survey originals are mailed to the BSSN office for secure storage. A BSSN Survey Manager receives all survey materials, and then enters all information into an electronic database and files in a secure cabinet.

The answers to the closed-ended and multiple choice questions are entered into an SPSS 16 database, a statistical package widely used in the social sciences and business for managing quantitative data. For the analysis and coding of open-ended questions, the popular qualitative research software NVivo 8 is utilized. Respondents’ open-ended answers are coded by using a version of the Delphi method. Drawing on the expertise of the project principles, the knowledge of other researchers involved in the project, and the input of outside experts on socio-environmental research, BSSN has developed a protocol for how to categorize and code the qualitative information contained in the surveys. In this work, particular attention is paid to instances in which the respondents’ answers yield information about socio-cultural phenomena such as:

  • Expectations about what should exist in the natural environment
  • The populations’ ability to adapt to changing harvesting conditions and develop flexible responses
  • Individuals’ sensitivity to climate shifts and general perceptions about environmental conditions
  • The sources of information that people rely on – for instance, personal observations, radio and television news, community elders – for their knowledge of environmental conditions
  • The impact of economy – for example, rising fuel prices – on harvesters’ ability to reach the locations where they hunt or fish.

3.2.8. Reporting to the Communities

At the conclusion of the field work, all questionnaires are compiled for analysis. The resulting data are both qualitative (narratives) and quantitative including graphs and charts. The reports provide detailed data summaries by the community. The results are presented to the community governing bodies. In Alaska, presentations are made at the Tribal Council meetings, in Russia reports are delivered to the Heads of local Administrations.

BSSN team realize that delivering a report on the study results to the communities involves more than mailing a paper copy or making a Power Point presentation. It is crucial to be able to demonstrate how the results can be applied to decision making and problem solving at a community level. In the pilot phase of BSSN, the limited time frame prevented the team from developing a strategy for communicating the results to the communities, but this strategy will be devised in the second phase of BSSN. Collaboration with village authorities is essential because the researchers need a clear understanding of issues and concerns that locally, to make proper recommendations. A successful collaboration necessitates a deep mutual trust. BSSN is a relatively long-term project (seven years for two phases) and is in a good position to achieve this level of trust.

Gambell CRA Antonia Penayah conducts an interview