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Seven tips for managing community science projects while keeping your distance

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Seven tips for managing community science projects while keeping your distance

By Raj Pandya, Melissa Goodwin, and Anne Johnson

(Note: Anne Johnson regularly manages and edits the Thriving Earth Newsletter and contributed specific ideas to this blog).

All of us likely will be dealing with some level of physical distancing (also called social distancing) for the foreseeable future.

At Thriving Earth Exchange, we’re adapting to this new reality by preparing all our program operations for distancing practices through remote orientations, virtual meetings and online tools. We’re asking leaders of our projects, new and existing, to design for physical distancing—and offering our help in that process.

Here are some tips we’ve heard or practiced. We want to hear your experience and ideas, too!

Embrace virtual collaboration:
  1. Start simple. Don’t underestimate the power of a simple conference call or group text. Everyone may not have access to perfect internet, 24-7 availability, comfort with Slack, or facility with Zoom. Structure a team conversation around the kinds of virtual approaches that people are comfortable with and be willing to adapt. Start with the simplest possible means to communicate first. I was part of a project in Africa, and the most effective tool we had was a weekly conference call.


  1. Welcome multiple modes of communication. Not everything can be accomplished simply. When you need additional channels of communication, add them. For example, you might need to email an attachment ahead of a scheduled call, share materials with a broader group via Google Drive or Dropbox, or facilitate real-time interaction with the public. I was on a recent science and society-focused meeting that used Facebook Live to broadcast, Zoom to line up presenters, and Twitter to receive comments. Starting small will give your team a chance to build trust and familiarity before incorporating multiple modes of technology. Build time into your activities to help people get started with new tools.


  1. Organize and be transparent. There is a challenge when using more than one mode of communication: How do you manage multiple channels where things get done, decisions get made and people weigh in? Spend time keeping track of communications, even if it is as simple as a running list of what was decided, and make sure you give people time and ways to catch up. Simple things can help: When you start a meeting, recap for everyone. For the meeting I mentioned in #2, one of the presenters regularly summarized the comments from Twitter, which worked well to make sure those voices and perspectives were brought into the broadcast. For a routine group call, it can help to share a Google Doc and invite everyone to add their notes and observations throughout the call.


  1. Allow time for compassion. This is always a good idea but may be even more critical when you can’t be in the same room. Check in with each other about how things are going and how people are feeling. If you can’t read a mood, ask. Call out your perceptions with open questions that give collaborators an opportunity to share without putting people on the spot. Even a simple question like “Is that a good silence or a bad silence?” can give colleagues a chance to clarify if they’re feeling uncomfortable with the direction of the project, need time to mull a new idea or are simply momentarily distracted by a pet or child.


Drive community science from a distance
  1. Reuse existing data. When you start thinking you need to collect new data to answer a question, pause and ask yourself if there are other ways to answer the question or proxy data that can help. When investigating heat impacts, for example, you might not be able to measure temperature in a neighborhood, but 9-1-1 calls, energy use or hospital records may provide insights. In a lot of cases communities can answer their questions about flood vulnerability by re-analyzing existing data. A climate question might be answered with data that has been downscaled for a nearby town (the silver lining of resolutions limits in climate science). Help people collect data on their own. Even in times of physical distancing, we are encouraged to be outside and get exercise. Make it easy for people to collect data while they’re out. You may not even have to design new data collection strategies. There are great tool kits that allow you to build relatively easily citizen science activities that allow people to collect data on their own. Check out and for lots of online tools and tips. Since people working on their own won’t have the on-the-ground support they would have while collecting data in a group, be sure to consider any safety guidelines or troubleshooting support you might need to provide.


And finally,
  1. Be forgiving. Recognize that you and your collaborators are going through something extraordinary. Social networks and support systems have been abruptly changed, and we’re all figuring out how to reconnect them in new ways from afar.


Yes, it’s a paradox. Community science, which depends so strongly on relationships, trust and cooperation is both harder than ever because of the distance and more necessary than ever because of the urgency to bridge science and its application to society. We aren’t just figuring out how to do something together, we’re figuring out how to do something without being together. If there is one thing we’ve learned from five years of Thriving Earth Exchange, it’s that as long as there is mutual respect, flexibility and creativity, we can figure things out. So, what are your tips for working effectively, getting things done, and making change while keeping our distance?

Kelly McCarthy subscriber

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