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Words matter: connecting the climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction communities

Using language and technology more effectively can lead the two distinct disciplines to bridge gaps and accomplish more.

This perspective is adapted from a brief written for the PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction (PLACARD).

Julia Barrott, Sukaina Bharwani / Published on 9 April 2018

Better communication between the climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction communities could enhance knowledge needed for policies that lead to sustainability. Photo: marrio31 / Getty Images.

The sheer volume and richness of information and knowledge about climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) have never been greater. However, all this information, which is intended to lead to more resilient and sustainable practices and policies, is useful only if people can find what they need and when they need it.

The Information Age transformed the potential for knowledge-sharing. Nevertheless, in practice, knowledge languishes across many Internet locations waiting to be discovered. What can rectify this?

We argue the answers lie in how we communicate with one another, and how we use the technologies now at our disposal to connect work on these important issues.

To that end, we are making the case for more considered knowledge-sharing practices, so that the information we have can be used to its full potential. This is the philosophy that underpins the work that we and our partner researchers undertake with the European Commission’s PLAtform for Climate Adaptation and Risk reDuction (PLACARD), an interchange that is intended to strengthen cooperation and to counter fragmentation between the Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction communitites, which both have important roles to play in research and policy underpinning sustainable development.

We believe that knowledge gaps can be addressed by taking two steps to improve communication and connections. They are:

  • Using language more effectively. Harmonised language and shared terminology are crucial in moving forward. Within CCA and DRR fields, the same word can mean different things. Recognising this, and finding a way to enhance understanding of how different terms are used will strengthen knowledge management within different organisations, improve the uptake of climate information, and increase opportunities for collaboration.
  • Using technology to connect data more effectively. Semantic tagging and linked, open data provide key ways to lead people to the information they are looking for.

Used together, these approaches have the potential to transform how the CCA and DRR communities communicate, how they share knowledge, and how they access online information.

Different definitions

The term “vulnerability” provides a good example of the gaps between the two communities. In the CCA world, vulnerability is used in the context of  systemic and long-term vulnerability reduction through capacity building. By contrast, in the DRR universe the term focuses largely on outcomes, such as reducing vulnerability to the effects of extremes and disasters. The differing interpretations suggest how terminology can impact the quality of collaboration and communication.

This is where tagging systems come in. They can be used to display the source of a term and its synonyms to increase understanding of how a term is being used.

Ecosystem vs ecosystem-based

Tagging improves content searching and discovery, both within and across websites. Where a shared tagging system is used by a community, tagging allows information and knowledge to be interlinked with other relevant content in a standardised way. This allows content to be pulled together from multiple websites based on searches using the same tags. For example, a search can retrieve all the content tagged with “ecosystem service”. Currently, for example, some content may be missed if instead tagged with a slight variation on this: “ecosystem-based service”. This illustrates why good knowledge management guidelines and practices are important for closing gaps.

Tagging can support detailed, faceted searches. That is, results can be filtered according to multiple attributes (based on the use of multiple tags). For example, content (e.g., people, projects) specific to a region, hazard, approach and context can be readily retrieved. Tagging also supports analysis of the information and understanding of the knowledge landscape, including the tracking of trends, and new tools and approaches.  For example, tags can be used to track the adoption of new approaches, and new and changing terms, such as “nature-based solutions” instead of “ecosystem-based solutions”’.

Semantic tagging allows implicitly relevant content to be suggested based on the tags applied in the search to support a user’s learning. For example, a basic search for “urban adaptation” may suggest “urbanisation”, “urban ecosystems”, and “urban heat island effect”. This ability to suggest other related terms can help users to discover and explore issues, solutions and approaches not previously considered. As a result, semantic tagging helps to promote learning.

This figure shows the layers within an Information and Knowledge Management system supported by semantic tagging. Diverse types of content are tagged with metadata, the attributes that describe the content. A semantic layer defines the relationships between the tags, and provides an additional level of interconnectivity. This layer makes it possible to analyse trends, find data patterns, and and bring additional, relevant content to users. Image: PoolParty Semantic Technologies Training course by Nika Mizerski and Timea Turdean.

“Knowledge graphs” offer a way to visualise the relationships between tags. For example, this graph shows that Latvia is a Country, in Europe, and that it borders Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Russia. Tags are circles, categories are rectangles, and relationships are lines. Image: from PoolParty Semantic Technologies Training course by Nika Mizerski and Timea Turdean.

Knowledge and information challenges

Conversations with stakeholders at PLACARD workshops in Brussels (23-27 October 2017) revealed significant and varied challenges key actors face in accessing relevant information needed for decision-making and planning. Their feedback emphasised the need for greater clarity on language – how terms are used/intended and why – and greater searchability and discoverability, particularly:

  • The ability to search for people. What experts are working on CCA/DRR in my country?
  • The ability to find and cluster key knowledge.  What projects in my region have focused on flooding in the past 10 years? What have they learned?
  • The ability to find more broadly relevant information. What good practices, solutions and plans exist for wildfire management in Europe?

Better use of communication and technology can meet these challenges.

Written by

Profile picture of Julia Barrott
Julia Barrott

Impact and Learning Officer

Global Operations

SEI Oxford

Sukaina Bharwani

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Oxford

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