4. Lessons Learned

The pilot phase is intended to test the BSSN concept and the methods employed. In regards to the overall concept of the network, there is no doubt that the concept has proved itself:

  • A systematic collection of local observations can be organized across national borders, diverse cultures, and across a large geographical area.
  • Perceptions of local residents provide an accurate reflection of status and changes occurring in the social and natural environment and can be correlated with other types of data.
  • Sociological methods of survey utilized to gather local observations enable data aggregation and analysis.

As expected, a number of changes in the project administration and execution have been recommended by the BSSN team after the completion of the pilot phase. These recommendations are discussed below, along with the project accomplishments.

4.1 Survey Design

One of the significant accomplishments of the survey question design, which occurred through extensive discussions between the communities and researchers, is in the reduction of “filtering” by respondents. This can be achieved by focusing on actual events and individual life experiences while extracting information on various physical and natural phenomena. Special attention is paid to avoiding “driving” respondents to any “wellknown” facts or media-publicized conclusions. This approach increases objectivity in respect to assessments based on the observations of local residents. Of equal importance is the improvement of data accuracy since questionnaire entries are entered in their original languages, English and Russian.

The pilot phase questionnaire is very long, and interviews were tiring for respondents. It is challenging to structure questions relevant and applicable to all respondents in all locations in all possible situations while accommodating community wishes and research requirements. The pilot phase questionnaire became overcomplicated and confusing, and that led to a high rate of missed questions and other problems with the survey administration. The concept of interviewing harvesters before and after harvesting events proved to be ineffective as hunters and fishermen are very busy, and it is difficult to complete both the pre and post-event questionnaires because of the problems with scheduling for the post-event interview. There were also difficulties with data organization because the questionnaire has two parts, harvest and environmental observations, that would have been better administered separately.

To respond to these issues, the survey instrument has been adjusted and redesigned to include a suite of short questionnaires: Harvest Locations (Baseline data), Seasonal Harvesting (Observations about species harvested in the previous six month), and Environmental Conditions Survey (Observations about the state of physical and natural environment in the last 15 years or more). Each questionnaire has a map where respondents can draw the locations. This information is used for GIS mapping. The new questionnaires are being successfully used in Phase II of BSSN.

4.2 Training

Training and face to face meetings for Community Research Assistants (CRA) are essential. In the pilot phase, the funds, budgeted for travel to the villages, were insufficient. The emphasis was on the use of a BSSN Survey Manual that was written for CRAs. A training session was held at the seminar in Anchorage in 2007, but it was the on-site training in each community that proved to be the most efficient. The training period for community coordinators needs to be extended in order to better equip them to cope independently with the variability inherent in the interviewing and technical questions regarding the documenting process. In Russia, the situation was even more challenging due to logistical issues.

The above issues are being addressed in BSSN Phase II. The budget allows for up to three trips per village per year in Alaska. Survey Manager and Senior Project Coordinator are in daily contact with village staff. The Russia based sub-award manager is trained in the survey methods for on-site training and prompt response to any issues that may arise in the Russian communities. The manager also reviews all completed questionnaires for quality control.

4.3 Communication

Utilizing emerging communication tools is essential for this project. Despite the distances between the Anchorage- based staff and member communities, extensive communications were possible due to the use of digital tools, such as Skype, to supplement scheduled teleconferences where possible. These tools allow real time audio and visual interactions on a daily basis and enable a distributed, coordinated network to function smoothly and acquire systematic data reliably. The use of emergent communication and data acquisition tools can drastically increase the effectiveness of this type of project.

Other challenges encountered by project managers range from the difficulties with retaining staff in remote locations and training new people to unpredictable weather conditions that affect travel and high cost of transportation. Such challenges are not unique to BSSN; they are common for any research projects based in remote arctic regions.