Advanced Training Course on Place-based Assessments of Land Systems
Louvain-la-Neuve, 28-30 November 2018

After two intense days in Amsterdam, COUPLED PhD students boarded the Thalys train to Brussels before arriving with the local train in Louvain-la-Neuve on Tuesday evening. We almost lost our coordinator on the way, but it turned out that Prof.Jonas Nielsen had just boarded the wrong carriage in Brussels (please, no jokes about PhD-degrees in Geography and having a sense of direction…). Ahead of us were three intense days with lectures and discussions on “Place-based Assessments of Land Systems”, run by Prof. Patrick Meyfroidt and Prof. Eric Lambin, both also supervisors within COUPLED, at UCLouvain with the assistance of postdocs from their research groups.

After a short introduction by the two professors, the the PhD fellows were each to give a presentation of the main theory(ies) underlying their research question – a challenging exercise to most of us, but eye-opening indeed. Those who thought they were here to mostly listen were given a wake-up call.

The rest of the morning was spent learning about study and sampling strategy design for case studies in land system science, discussions and examples of questionnaires and surveys for “linking people to pixels”, that is, connecting the images of remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to the realities on the ground; a useful skill when studying changes in land cover and land use.

After lunch, which included a Taiji course (perhaps the next training course will continue the “tradition” of meditative or light physical exercises during lunch – the Depeche has herewith been given on), we continued with practical exercises on GIS, online database of open access geospatial datasets, remote sensing and Google Earth Engine. A long day finished with dinner at Alterez-Vous – a local restaurant with focus on sustainable, local produce. And of course, beer. We are in Belgium, after all.

Those who thought that Thursday morning would begin lightly were in for a surprise: Econometric approaches for causal inference based on counterfactuals, Concepts of selection bias, confounding variables, statistical matching, randomized controlled trials (RCT), and Difference in Difference (DiD). How’s that for breakfast? Well, (luckily!) the focus was on understanding the concepts and study designs, not the statistical techniques themselves.

After a tour de force in statistical analysis, PhDs again had to get busy with their own projects: An exercise on analysing causal chains in their individual PhD projects was up next. Pen in hand, the task was to draw on an A2 paper the causal chains relevant to your project, explain it to your peers, receive feedback and make corrections accordingly. Difficult? Yes. Useful? Absolutely. Exercise time was not over, and after drawing causal chains, we were each given two minutes to explain our study design and the methodologies we intend to apply. What methods and theories to apply to one’s own research – and why! – is something that all PhD-students should regularly reflect upon.

After using the afternoon to learn (or at least trying to!) to use R to analyse land use and deforestation patterns in Bhutan, we rounded off an intense day with dinner at a local Belgian restaurant complete with Moules Frites, beers, and other Belgian specialties.

Friday morning was, for those that had indulged (too much?) in the Belgian world of beer, luckily a bit more down to earth (pun not intended!) and practical than Thursday’s statistical storm.

Postdoc Dilini Abeygunawardane presented insights from the MIDLAND project, where she researches how agricultural and forestry investment modes and decision making pan out across Southern and Eastern Africa, and gave advice on how to secure interviewees and conduct interviews. Then postdoc Erasmus zu Ermgassen gave a quick tour of how he is using Trase data from the Stockholm Environment Institute (introduced to the PhD students in Vienna’s ATC) to assess zero-deforestation commitments in Brazil. It was really interesting to see this great and very comprehensive tool used in practice. The morning concluded with a long and fruitful discussion on cross-scale and cross-place research, relevant methodologies, data analysis, and even the concept of telecoupling itself.

Throughout the week, the advantages of being part of a diverse group of people with very different skill-sets became abundantly clear. Some of us had never seen R before, but could be expertly guided through it by more experienced students, while others again were experts in ArcMap, modelling or another software. Next time we meet will be in Berlin in January, where the topic will be Qualitative Methods – providing another opportunity for some students to shine with their knowledge of participatory methods or questionnaire design. Until then, have a Wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Blog post by Simon Bager, ESR03 at UCLouvain

Personal side note:  Wonderful as they are, the PhD fellows surprised this author and my friend and COUPLED colleague Tiago by having arranged a baby shower Friday noon. Tiago and his wife Larissa expect a baby in December (as of this writing, little Botinho was still safe in his mother’s womb), while my wife Signe and I expect a baby around March. Gifts containing clothes, shoes, teddies, rattles, and other baby gear suddenly lay in front of us, along with a card with personal messages from all of our colleagues.

I think it’s safe to say that we are fortunate to be among the best group of people. Thank you!

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