FGV study wins social impact award in UK

Project developed in partnership with University of Glasgow created an app to improve the flow of information about floods in vulnerable areas and has been adopted by the Mato Grosso do Sul and Santa Catarina state civil defense agencies.
01 December 2023
FGV study wins social impact award in UK

A study by Fundação Getulio Vargas and the University of Glasgow, which developed an app to monitor flooding in vulnerable locations, won this year’s Celebrating Impact Prize in the Outstanding Societal Impact category.

These awards are designed to recognize projects that have generated significant social impacts. They are handed out every year by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, a British organization that funds scientific research.

According to João de Albuquerque, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, who led the project together with Maria Alexandra Cunha, a researcher at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Sao Paulo School of Business Administration (FGV EAESP), this is the foremost award in the UK when it comes to recognizing social science research that has generated positive impacts.

“The Celebrating Impact Prize is a peer-reviewed academic prize. In other words, we are talking about rewarding projects that have gone beyond the production of academic knowledge to generate impacts on people’s lives,” Albuquerque says. He believes that this achievement not only brings recognition to the study itself but also reiterates the value of doing research together with different governmental, civil society and other organizations.

Waterproof Data Project

The Waterproof Data Project aims to improve the flow of information related to floods, especially in regions vulnerable to this type of occurrence. Researcher Maria Alexandra Cunha explains that this information usually comes from government agencies or specialist centers. These agencies and centers produce data that underpins public alerts, which are also supported by specific local information.

“In addition, the people in a given community also pass on knowledge about their location to each other, which may inform public policies. It turns out that all this flow of data about floods, involving different information from various stakeholders, can sometimes break down, putting the population’s well-being at risk. That’s why our project created methods to improve the flow of this information,” Cunha explains.

The study culminated in the creation of a free app, available to any community. The idea is for people to feed a platform with measurements of rainfall and river levels, as well as information about the consequences of these events in their location. The app sends this data generated by the population to a database, which is also fed by agencies and specialized centers, and from which a dashboard is generated, available to the public, civil defense organizations or anyone else who is interested.

According to Cunha, you can’t talk about this app without highlighting the methods that were created by the researchers to co-produce knowledge with people from vulnerable locations or centers of expertise. The group adopted an approach inspired by Paulo Freire’s instructive dialogue approach and guided by the principles of climate justice and data justice. “To make this data visible, we developed a data diary, and to engage people with this information, we applied data gardening, pollination and dialogic mapping,” she says. 

In addition, the Waterproof Data Project created an elective course for high schools located in regions at risk of flooding. This way, students and teachers in the classroom can practice this method of rainfall measurement and help spread the tool in their communities.

“This is an important component of this project, given that the app was initially tested in seven cities in five Brazilian states. The project’s ‘pollinators’ not only tested the platform, but also instructed the population on how to use rain gauges, the correct way to take measurements and how to upload this information to the app. They also encouraged other people to use the tool, such as students and other community members,” Cunha says.

The platform has already been used by more than 200 schools and over 100 civil defense forces, mobilizing around 500 citizen scientists.

Multidisciplinary and international partnerships

The project, co-funded by the Sao Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP), involved the multidisciplinary participation of more than 70 researchers and members of different communities, ranging from the exact sciences such as hydrology, physics and computer science to the social sciences and humanities, involving researchers in the fields of geography, social psychology, public administration, media studies and the arts.

According to FAPESP’s scientific director, Marcio de Castro Filho, investment in research with a direct impact on people’s lives is fundamental for social progress and improving the quality of life.

“As well as contributing to scientific development, this research generates practical solutions to the challenges faced by society. Thus, FAPESP contributes to funding research aimed at strategic objectives, including climate change. This is also done through cooperation, including through a call for proposals together with the Belmont Forum,” he says.

Other partners in the project included the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the National Center for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alerts (CEMADEN), part of Brazil’s Science and Technology Ministry. Other public bodies in different spheres of government were also involved in the testing phase.

Cunha believes that the multidisciplinary nature of this project highlights new ways of doing science today. “In addition to academic and governmental partners, the active role of communities played a fundamental role in this project, as they participated in all stages, from the preparation of the diagnosis to the solution of the problems,” she says, noting that the study originated from another FGV project, which has a research station in M´Boi Mirim, a region with almost 600,000 residents on the south side of Sao Paulo. “The Waterproof Data Project arose from this experience,” she says.

The project has also created a YouTube channel to present a series of short videos about people’s memories of floods, recapturing the experiences of people who faced these disasters, with a focus on valuing their knowledge of this phenomenon. Click here to access the channel.

Recognition and expansion of project

Thanks to the recognition of the Celebrating Impact Prize, João de Albuquerque believes that the Waterproof Data Project will become more visible and therefore have a better chance of helping communities facing flooding problems.

“The project was also a winner in the 2022 Times Higher Education Awards, another British awards scheme, known as the ‘Oscars of Education.’ On that occasion, the FGV and University of Glasgow study was nominated for Project of the Year in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences category. In Emerald Publishing’s Real Impact Awards, Waterproof Data received an honorable mention in the Mobilizing Research into Action category, which recognizes commitment to connecting research and action in order to bring about change in society, with a special focus on international collaboration,” says Albuquerque.

The app has been used in schools located in areas at high risk of flooding in Brazil and the project’s methodology has also been adopted by the civil defense authorities of the states of Santa Catarina and Mato Grosso do Sul. Representatives of the Colombian government have also contacted the researchers with a view to adapting the app to Colombia’s circumstances.

“Our aim is to help various communities in vulnerable situations, not only in Brazil but around the world, to face the risks that arise from floods and other extreme weather events, which are expected to become increasingly frequent due to climate change,” Albuquerque adds. 

Tales Andreassi, the vice dean of FGV EAESP, says, “This award shows that FGV’s research has attained international levels of quality and excellence, helping our school actively attract grants and funding from other countries.”

Find out more about the project.

Find out more about the awards.

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