By Alison Crowther, Dialogue and Engagement Specialist at Sciencewise 
Sciencewise is lucky – we get to know and talk in depth about new science or data that most people have never even heard of. Remember that burger  which came from cow cells but not a cow? We were talking about that three years ago with a group of the public who discussed whether and how the Government should respond to, or pursue this research.
More recently, I’ve been involved in running a dialogue event about some new flood maps, which were only released internally within the Environment Agency (EA) a couple of weeks ago and have not yet been made public. (The current maps are available on the Environment Agency’s website .)
They are designed to show the risk of flooding in a particular area, allowing the public to search for anywhere in the UK. The maps clearly have some teething problems, which is why we’re looking at them so early, so comments about potential uses, link-ups and extensions to the concepts and diagrams within the maps are going to be really useful to the Agency’s staff.
The event was part of the British Science Festival , which this year took place at Newcastle University. The timing of the Festival – just before we appointed a contractor to run the EA’s project on flood risk – meant this was a kind of practise dialogue event and hugely useful to make subsequent events focussed and efficient.
We were fortunate to have a member of our Sciencewise Citizen Panel , Ruth Lesser, who gave a brief explanation of her experience as a public member of two Sciencewise dialogues, Sciencehorizons  (2007) and Bioenergy  (2013). She emphasised how enjoyable her experiences were, yet how the work was meaningful and made a significant difference to eventual Government policy.
Participants then spoke about their own experiences of flooding and some key points came out:
- Flooding affects everyone – even if nobody round the table had been flooded at home, they had been caught in the car for a few hours waiting for flood waters to subside, or some had been caught in another country – Bangkok, for example – and were acutely aware that the flooding there was due to deforestation and concreting over soil. Flooding may not affect people’s homes, but it may affect their work or journey to work.
- There was a growing awareness, once people discussed it, that flooding can cause mental and physical health issues, not just the cost and annoyance of insurance and repair. People become very anxious about rain, and become worried that the flooding may happen again. It was felt that this aspect of flooding is not well known or thought about in the general public.
- Conversely, the groups noted how flooding was not something people thought about or planned for. It is not really discussed and there were questions about the right level of societal discussion for high-impact, low-probability events. How worried should we be?
- Very few of us know about flooding ‘etiquette’ – really simple things like what level of flood water will mangle your car if you try to drive through it. Or that you shouldn’t drive through flood water because of the wash it causes – one group noted that in a recent flood, the water came up to just below the doorsteps of some of the houses, but when cars passed drove by, the wave created breached their front doors and went inside their houses ruining carpets, electrics and so on.
The next session was specifically about the maps. It was noted by some of the participants that:
- It would be useful to have different colours to identify risk – not just different colours of blue, but reds and oranges too, to indicate danger.
- A number of tables really appreciated the flood photos that are shown in the maps as it helped explain to them what different levels of flooding actually looked like – was it patch puddles or was it a torrent coming down steps?
- Others liked the story told by historic photos of flooding, placing it in a temporal context as well as a geographical one. The photos were very warmly welcomed generally, and people thought that even if it would be too much for the official EA website, maybe there could be a link to other sites for that kind of detail.
- Groups noted that crowd-sourcing photos from the public in Hull and Newcastle in their recent floods had been very good for communities to inform each other of what was going on. In addition, the EA got to see whether its models worked because it had some real-time data to put with them.
This is just a flavour of the huge range of comments and suggestions at this very informative event.
My thanks go to the team – our facilitators and experts from the EA, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Newcastle University – for making the event so enjoyable and successful. Plus thanks to those people who worked behind the scenes to make sure the room was appropriate, light, and easy to work in and that we had food and drink to keep us going!
The team will now feedback these initial findings to the staff at the EA looking after the maps, to the Oversight Group for the project (comprising virtually every agency in the country responsible for flooding and response), and whoever wins the contract to deliver the dialogue project.
So watch this space – and if you take a look at the EA’s flood maps every three months or so, you’ll see the progress of our project spelled out there!