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What do we have in common? Narratives as a reflexive tool to understand citizen science initiatives

< Streva Blogs

What do we have in common? Narratives as a reflexive tool to understand citizen science initiatives

By Teresa Armijos

A group of scientists and citizens who live around Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador have been working together to monitor the volcano for the past 17 years. How did they manage to do this and what can we learn from them? What does it mean to be volunteer in a citizen science project? What can scientists learn from participating in citizen science projects? How can storytelling and shared narratives help consolidate and strengthen citizen science?

With the aim learning more about the ‘vigías’ network in Ecuador and as part of the GCRF funded project “Harnessing ‘citizen science’ to reinforce resilience to environmental disasters: creating an evidence base and community of practice” in the past year we have conducted a series of reflexive workshops with volunteers and scientists who live and work near Tungurahua Volcano in Ecuador. In this blog I reflect on what we have learned about one another through these workshops and how important narratives can be in sustaining volunteer groups in the long term.

The vigías network is a community based monitoring system that comprises of around 35 volunteers who collect and communicate observations of volcanic activity to scientists at the Tungurahua Volcano Observatory and to local officials. The word ‘vigía’ means vigil or watchman which in this case translates into being looking at and after the volcano. They like to call themselves ‘the eyes and ears of the volcano’.

Most of these volunteers are farmers who live in different areas around Tungurahua and who have received some training from scientist. Established in 2000 following the reactivation of the volcano and the subsequent evacuation of the population, the vigía network has been central in helping scientists better understand volcanic activity. For the scientists, having a close link with the communities has also been beneficial in terms of understanding peoples’ livelihoods and priorities and therefore towards making recommendations that carefully consider residents’ points of view. Direct communications between scientists and citizens has also served as an early warning system which has been key in supporting communities to sustain their livelihoods in the slopes of Tungurahua. As a result of trust building and constant communications, which during periods of heightened volcanic activity could range between two to hundreds of times a day, scientists and volunteers have developed a shared vocabulary that allows them to describe physical observations and interpret volcanic activity in an easy and efficient manner. With time, the vigías have also acquired different responsibilities such as helping people evacuate when the volcano has entered into periods of high activity or participate in other disaster risk management related activities in their villages. In recent years, and despite a significant decrease in volcanic activity, the vigías have continued communicating with one another and with the scientists. What keeps them together after all these years?

About the workshops: Staring in March 2017, the ‘Harnesisng Citizen Science Project’ conducted a series of art and storytelling meetings with vigias and scientists in Tungurahua, Ecuador. Facilitated by Pablo Sanaguano, an Ecuadorian artist, these workshops have offered informal and open spaces for people to share their experiences of being part of a citizen science volunteer network and living next to an active volcano. All participants, including researchers from the UK have taken part in these activities on an equal basis. We all had to draw, talk and share. Stories of emergency situations, of last minute evacuations, of lost and saved lives, of lost property and animals, of changed fortunes for ever, of the excitement at the magnificent expectable offered by the volcano during explosive eruptions, of encounters with others, with oneself, but most of all, of and about solidarity, have been at the centre of these meetings.

What does it mean to be a vigía? When asked how is it to be a volunteer, what meaning does it have in their lives and what they have learned over the years, the vigías told us their stories of change, of friendship and learning. Different ideas were shared by the members of the network. For example, their long term commitment to work for the community, a satisfaction in knowing that they are doing something that would protect and benefit their families and neighbours in their villages and a deeply felt call to volunteer and do more than what was expected from them. They also highlighted difficulties in the process such as the time invested in volunteering and the cost this has for their families and livelihoods or dealing with sometimes negative responses from community members or authorities. In their own words being a vigía is important because:

‘ We are able to protect their families and others in the community’

‘ This gives us the opportunity to transmit our knowledge from the ground to others’


What have the scientists learned? The vigías networks could not have been established, or exist without the effort and enthusiasm of the scientists at the Instituto Geofísico de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional who monitor the volcano. Different generations of scientists have interacted with the vigías. They have shared their knowledge of the volcano and at the same time gained invaluable knowledge about the lives and livelihoods of people living close to the volcano. These relationships have been key in facilitating the network and in allowing a more equal exchange between scientist and the communities. As one of the young female scientists said:

‘Entering into this family has been very special; it is nice to see how they [vigías] interact with each other and how seriously they take their volunteer activities. I have learned a lot from being part of this system. Thank you for all of what I have learned from you’

‘Being part of vigías network is important because with the knowledge we have [scientists] we can help others, we can alert the residents and most of all we can share our knowledge and experiences so that everyone benefits from it and at the same time help mitigate hazard impact on the population’

What we as a project/people have learned –  These workshops offered a fantastic opportunity for us as outsiders to learn and understand what being  part of a volunteer network means for different people, scientists and volunteers alike. It helped open up different ways of understanding knowledge exchange and to recognise the value of narratives in surfacing emotion and subjectivity in all scientific endeavours.

Narrative as a transformative exercise. During these workshops, where people have expressed their stories orally or through paintings and drawings, the value of the narrative as a strong method for reflexive data gathering has become evident. Rather than trying to disqualify, hide, or ignore emotion, through the careful use of narrative it became possible to understand people’s motivations, constraints and experiences in their roles as volunteers or scientists. Using narrative in the context of a citizen science initiative, where different types of knowledge and ways of relating to the environment define the exchanges and rapport, also helped equalise and contextualise these knowledges. These workshops became spaces where citizens and scientists were able to make sense of their shared experiences, to share emotion, make sense of difficult times, of moments where life was at risk, or when the responsibility of interpreting the volcano was excruciating. This helped all the participants to create a sense of community, of shared knowledge and a common vision. Narratives helped us remember what we have in common, our humanity.

What the vigias said about the workshop:

‘These moments fill us with joy, they give us courage to continue doing what we do. They allow us to share the experiences that have given us knowledge. We do not know everything, we only know what we have learned until now. It might be possible that tomorrow we encounter a different type of problem, so my call to you is to be prepared, to be united as we have been over the past 17- 18 years. Sometimes I feel that we can’t or we are unable to remain together, that we are tired, but let’s keep going!’

If you want to learn more about the vigías and their role in monitoring the volcano see:

Stone, J., Barclay, J., Simmons, P., Cole, D., Loughlin, P., Ramón, S., Mothes, P., 2014. ‘Risk reduction through community-based monitoring: the vigías of Tungurahua, Ecuador’. J. Appl. Volcanol. 3 (14).

Armijos, M.T., Phillips, J.C., Wilkinson, E., Barclay, J., Palacios, P., Hicks, A., Mothes, P., Stone, J. (2017). ‘Adapting to changes in volcanic behaviour: formal and informal interactions for disaster risk management at Tungurahua Volcano, Ecuador’. Global Environmental Change, 45:217-226.

Related Research

M.T. Armijos, J.Phillips, E.Wilkinson, J. Barclay, A. Hicks, P. Palacios,P. Mothes and J. Stone (2017) Adapting to changes in volcanic behaviour: formal and informal interactions for enhanced risk management at Tungurahua Volcano, Ecuador Global Environmental Change 45: 217-226 * Open Access *

Few, R., Armijos, M.T., Barclay, J. (2017) Living with Volcan Tungurahua: the dynamics of vulnerability during prolonged volcanic activity Geoforum, 80, 72-81. * Open Access *

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