Author Archives: sj294

While ministers dither on floods, social media springs into action

Rebecca Sandover, Associate Research Fellow in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, dicusses how people are using social media to take action on the floods crisis affecting the UK. Her article first appeared on The Conversation.

I’ve just returned from sandbagging near the swollen River Parrett at Langport, a town next to the flooded Somerset Levels. There, local people are using new media to take action in the midst of a disaster.

The flooding has been going on since before Christmas and is now reaching crisis point. An area of 65km2 around the Muchelney and Moorland is underwater, covering farms and affecting 150 homes. Isolated properties, hamlets and whole villages now find themselves flooded, roads are closed and services disrupted, potentially for the forseeable future.

Relations between government ministers and the Environment Agency have soured over the lack of support on offer to the victims of the floods. So while they argue, locals are using social media to help themselves.

A group called Flooding on the Levels Action Group, or FLAG Somerset, has emerged to coordinate activities on the ground, using Twitter to lead an extraordinarily effective community response.

FLAG’s Twitter page. Twitter


FLAG, which began life as a local pro-dredging pressure group, has been active on Twitter since early January. By 25 January, it had 300 followers and it now has more than 2,000. The feed is used to inform local residents about what is happening and to collect pledges of support from the outside world.

The group posts pictures of what is happening on the ground, such as photos of an HGV loaded with straw heading off from Rutland and locals sandbagging together. It also charted the arrival of the Khalsa Aid group, a British-based international relief organisation which helped desperate householders move furniture upstairs and make sandbags.

Over on Facebook, FLAG’s action group has grown enormously with 5,958 new members. The co-ordination group has been running for less than a week but already has an office and laptops for volunteers to channel offers of help and often urgent calls for assistance.


Sandbagging in Somerset Clare Larkins


The Facebook action group was used to call for volunteers to help create a secure riverside path for villagers of Burrowbridge, whose roads are all flooded. Some volunteers came to the scene after work to pitch in while others offered food to help keep them going. As a result, an impressive path was created out of piles of wood chip along one side of the river. It is the only way for some villagers to access emergency supplies stored at the local pub.

Returning to the warm and dry, I’m hooked on watching the apparently endless support pouring in from around the county and beyond on the FLAG Facebook page. There are rest centres for people flooded out of their homes, drop-off points across the county for supplies to be donated to those in need and information about where to find them is all online. Blankets, food, clothing and toiletries are pouring in after online appeals and charities such as PetAid have donated pet food. Perhaps most importantly of all, tonnes of sand, sand bags and Dutch pumps are being pledged and delivered.

Donations are just one side of the story though. FLAG’s Twitter and Facebook accounts are used to send out appeals for help and requests for donations, using a variety of hashtags. Tweets asking for any spare waders to be sent to a certain location in the area, appear to be particularly common, for example.

The social media pages run by FLAG have become the go-to community resource for help as more and more houses and farms have been overwhelmed. FLAG will post a shout out on its Facebook page and, very quickly, people pull on their wellies and head out to help. It has led to livestock being moved to safer locations and sandbags being distributed to where they are most needed. Now the group has organised a central list of contacts and emergency numbers to help with communications.

These activities, widely shared through Facebook and Twitter, are going unreported as the mass media focuses on high-level visits and the endless debate about how best to manage landscapes that are vulnerable to flooding. What these communities really do not appreciate is talk pronouncing their demise. Those who have not been here to see the people digging in to support not only each other, but also the continuation of their communities, have not seen the full picture of this flooding disaster story.

Through FLAG this inundated area of Somerset is drawing in grassroots knowledge to respond to reports from experts, as well as unappreciated comments from others.

The group has come up with a seven-point plan for dealing with floods in the future. This plan acknowledges the complexity of managing a low-lying area such as the Levels and not only calls for dredging and a tidal barrage on the River Parrett, but also points to the importance of increasing infiltration and creating attenuation ponds upstream.

In using social media, the people working together in Somerset have shown enormous community resilience and demonstrated how online tools can be used to make a fast response to a changing situation possible.

But it should also be said that this response is taking people out of their everyday lives. Community ties are being strengthened through this disaster but some lives are on hold and others are being ripped apart by the flooding.

Rebecca Sandover does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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The rising spectre of a ‘plastic ocean’

Plastic refuse could be problematic for the oceans.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The recent high winds, waves and tides across the UK have transformed many of the nation’s beaches, with sand removed, cliffs eroded and properties damaged. Amongst the changes, many people will have noticed dramatic increases in the amount of plastic debris. Ranging from the banal to the curious, these fragments of 21st Century life are the signature of a problem that is threatening our oceans.

Plastic litter is now almost everywhere in the world’s oceans, extending from the coast far out to sea, and down onto the sea floor. Large pieces of plastic such as bottles, plastic bags, cigarette lighters and old toys can be found on most beaches and readily spotted from the decks of ocean-going vessels. And there’s more, microplastic fragments – those smaller than 5mm – and even less obvious nanoscale plastics (less than 1mm in size), are readily detectable in sand, sediment and even in the tissues of marine organisms.

One of the main causes of this global problem is increasing plastic manufacture, with annual production increasing from just 1.5 million tonnes in the 1950s to a staggering 280 million tonnes in 2011.

Despite the ubiquity of plastic in the ocean, our knowledge about the effects of this debris is limited. As if to underline the issue, a recent horizon scan of global conservation issues identified microplastics as a serious emerging global environmental threat.

Numerous organisations have drawn attention to the plastic litter issue, yet the scale of the problem is not widely appreciated by either the public or politicians. And right on cue, research is beginning to show that plastic litter is affecting a number of marine animals, including birds, turtles and invertebrates, with studies also finding plastic fragments in the guts, respiratory structures and tissues of marine species.

Yet few, if any, practical measures have been put in place to manage the situation.

In June of 2013, I was one of over a hundred scientists who met at the University of Siena in Italy to clarify what is known – and what remains to be investigated – concerning plastic litter in the sea.

We discussed several important areas that need further investigation, including the need for answers to questions like: How much plastic is getting into the marine environment each year?; What are the key sources?; Where do the different types of plastic litter accumulate?;

Is plastic taken up by marine organisms?; Is it damaging to them?; What is the extent of economic, environmental and human health costs resulting from the presence of plastic litter in the marine environment?

Identifying questions like these allows us to focus our research efforts as a community, and ensure we’re targeting the right areas with the limited funding that exists.

But science alone cannot solve the rising possibility of an ocean where beaches of plastic, rather than sand, are commonplace. Public education programmes are needed to increase awareness of the scale and severity of the issue, whilst guidelines and regulations to ensure the safe disposal of plastics need to be developed and enforced. Ultimately, the global community needs to work towards a reduction in the use of plastics and develop environmentally friendly alternatives.

There is clearly much to be done to bring the issue of plastic litter in the seas to the attention of the public, policymakers and politicians. Fortunately, the European Commission and other funding organisations around the world have at last begun to support research work in this area. Nonetheless, as with many environmental problems of our time, the need for positive action to limit the plastic debris in our oceans has become undeniably immediate.

Professor Michael Depledge
Chair of Environment and Human Health
University of Exeter Medical School

Read more about the issue in this review recently published by Professor Depledge.

Green cities provide a mental health boost that lasts

Dr Ian Alcock

Exeter academic Dr Ian Alcock led on recently published research which shows how quickly moving to a greener area can beenfit human health. He discusses his findings in the below blog, first posted on The Conversation.

It’s been established that enjoying green spaces in otherwise grey urban areas can lead to improved mental health for city-dwellers. But new research has revealed how surprisingly quickly those benefits appear, and how long they last.

Research from the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that people living in towns and cities with more parks and gardens tend to report greater well-being than those without. But it also revealed that relocating to a greener part of town led to improvements in their mental health that lasted for at least three years.

There are other life changes that influence mental health, and many of those do so gradually, or else seem to be only short-lived. Job promotion and marriage boost well-being in the short term, for example, and financial windfalls can lead to gradual improvements. But these new findings indicate that simply increasing the ratio of green to grey in urban neighbourhoods is likely to provide benefits that are not only immediate, but which continue to deliver benefits long afterwards.

The research, just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a long-running household survey project, based in Essex. We analysed five consecutive years of mental health questionnaires, answered by people who had relocated to a different residential area between the second and third years.

Two groups of people were tracked: 600 who moved to greener urban areas, and 470 who moved to areas that were less green. While the group who moved to greener suburbs showed significant improvements for all three years after their relocation, there was not a corresponding decline in mental health for those who moved to less green areas. There was, however, a decline in the mental health of these people in the year before they moved. It’s not clear whether this was some degree of dread at the anticipated relocation, or whether it was declining well-being that lay behind the decision to relocate.

Studying people who relocate from one area to another can offer insights into the effects of town planning decisions that alter the make-up of city neighbourhoods. It’s hard to design and carry out experiments that involve the radical “re-greening” and “de-greening” of our cities to see what effects these processes have. But we can get important clues by looking at the average effects that result from the loss or gain of green space after someone has moved home.

Endless cities risk much grey, not enough green. wilhelmja

The benefits we’ve observed have implications for planning policy, which aims to improve public health through urban design. Our findings suggest that improved mental health is not the result simply of the novelty of living in a greener area, which might wear off quickly. Creating parks and green corridors in our increasingly urban landscapes could represent good value-for-money public health services, delivering long term benefits to community health.

How good is green space for urban residents? An earlier study published in Psychological Science estimated the effects on mental health delivered by a 1% difference in urban green space, also working with Household Panel Survey data from England and controlling for the effects of personality. The study found that living in an area with high rather than low green space was equal to roughly a third of the benefit of being married, and a tenth of the benefit of having a job.

Importantly, in estimating the effects of green space, the team accounted for other factors which can influence mental health, such as the individuals’ income, family and employment circumstances. They also accounted for area factors which may overlap with urban greenness, such as the socio-economic profile of the neighbourhood.

Depression and depressive disorders are now the leading cause of disability in middle to high income countries – mental health is a critical public health issue of modern times. And it’s quite possible this trend is related to how quickly the world’s population is moving to the city: in the world’s more developed regions, more than three-quarters of the population live in urban environments, with the reduced access to the natural world that brings.

So while these studies don’t show that relocating to a greener area will definitely increase happiness, the findings fit with other experimental work that shows how short spells in a green space does improve people’s mood, and cognitive functioning. Our findings join those from earlier epidemiological studies that clearly demonstrate the link between health benefits and green space.

Ian Alcock receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. The European Centre for Environment and Human Health is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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Carol Smart’s donor conception lecture

On 15 November, Prof Carol Smart, a co-director of the Morgan Centre for the Study of Relationships and Personal Life gave a talk as part of Exeter’s Humanities and Social Sciences open lecture series. Staff, students, and interested others gathered to hear Carol talk about her work on donor conception in contemporary family life, including Research Fellow Dr Joe Sweetman

Carol’s work on the Relative Strangers project (with co-investigator Dr Petra Nordqvist) provided the basis of her talk. Over the last 20 years more than 35,000 children have been born in the UK through donor conception (via the donation of sperm or ova) and increasing access to new reproductive technologies means that families with children conceived through donor conception are set to become more common.

The Relative Strangers project explored what it means to have a child born through donor conception. Carol described some of the findings from interviews conducted with 44 couples (22 lesbian and 22 heterosexual parents) that conceived using a donor and 30 grandparents of donor-conceived children. With an array of data on family experiences, she focused on two themes:

  1. How do families manage to connect?
  2. What makes families struggle to connect?

Carol found that although parents (and less so grandparents) were usually in favour of being open about the genetic origins of donor-conceived children, they found that telling children and others was fraught with difficulties. For example, parents struggled with figuring out just how and when to tell people.

Notions of genetic relatedness played a central role in families’ experiences. For some, donor conception was “better” than adoption because of the genetic-relatedness of “at least” one parent. For others, engagement with (often fuzzy) notions of genetics led them to affirm the importance of parenting as doing – highlighting how nurture (rather than nature) led to the process of building the child into one of the family.

There were differences between the experiences of lesbian and heterosexual couples, with the latter’s decision to use donor conception often being taken in the shadow of infertility problems.

Throughout the talk Carol used powerful quotes from families that demonstrated the human significance of these donor-related issues. To end, she shared a moving quote that highlighted some of the other difficulties faced by couples. It detailed the dilemma faced by a heterosexual couple where the male was in favour of using his brother’s sperm, rather than a stranger’s, while his partner was not.

Carol asked the audience whether they should use a stranger’s or the brother’s sperm and, for a moment at least, we all appreciated the difficulty inherent in donor conception and the need to support families going through it.

Bridging the Gaps Showcase

Bridging the Gaps (BTG) has received £600,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to facilitate interdisciplinary research both between the sciences and between the sciences, social sciences and humanities. A Showcase of what BTG has achieved over the last three years was held on 25 September 2013.

Throughout its duration, BTG provided pump-priming funding for 68 development fund awards for interdisciplinary research projects, workshops and networks, and staged 80 events. Postdoctoral Researcher Dr George Littlejohn attended the event and has given us his thoughts…

One of the BTG’s remits was to create virtual environments in which researchers could collaborate -project leader Prof David Butler acknowledged in his opening comments that these projects, using environments like Elgg and Second Life had not been as popular as real-world events.

The final evaluation of BTG is now over. The success of 12 case study projects was discussed by Prof Mark Goodwin. They yielded 12 publications, 11 grant applications, three of which so far have been successful and 10 ongoing collaborations.

There were six presentations from BTG award holders. Prof Steve Brooks spoke about the Exeter Initiative for Statistics and its Applications (ExIStA) Network, an initiative which has brought together 350 individuals from universities, NHS, Met Office and business. ExIStA aims are to share skills and expertise, foster collaborations and promote the use of statistical models and good practice.

Dr Sarah Goldingay and Prof Paul Dieppe talked about the joint drama and University of Exeter Medical School project looking at the healing response and responses to pain. The project has led to a paper, grant proposals and interest from the BBC in their work. Their work also led to a movie entitled “Lourdes 2011 ”.

Bringing to Exeter to prominence in the study of fungal diseases of trees was highlighted by Dr David Studholme. He discussed a workshop on Phytophthora ramorum, which is devastating larch trees in the UK and cited the workshop as useful in preparing the ground for a successful £4million grant to work on ash dieback.

Prof Richard Everson holds the record for BTG awards, having been involved in 10 interdisciplinary projects. He gave some general lessons, observing that projects work best where the partners have equal shares and equal stakes in the success of the project rather than where one partner is providing a service to the others. He commented on the success of the networks established through BTG citing ExIStA and the Exeter Imaging Network.

Dr Karen Knapp spoke about the development of dance DVDs aimed at perimenopausal and postmenopausal women at risk of osteoporosis. A feasibility study has led to commercial interest and the possibility of extending the study.

Creativity is an important aspect of all academic endeavour and the Creative Systems Group described by Dr Robin Durie was arguably the most wide ranging of the projects presented at the showcase. It was set up to examine the phenomenon of creativity and included individuals working in maths, politics, law, synthetic biology, health and education.

I have been fortunate enough to have collaborated on several BTG projects and echo the sentiments expressed by several speakers and poster presenters that the support given by Project Manager Dr Helen Butler and Project Assistant Lois Spence was absolutely exemplary.

Bridging the Gaps has officially ended, but Profs Goodwin and Butler announced at the meeting that there would be two further BTG calls in the next year, and further internal support would be available.

The greater legacy of BTG was best summed up by Prof Richard Everson when he said that the indirect outputs of BTG, as much as the papers and grant applications were important and made the collegiate atmosphere he experienced walking around campus make it feel like a proper University.