In the spotlight: Dr. Sarah Giest

Sarah GiestDr. Sarah Giest is an Associate Professor of Data and Policy at the Institute for Public Administration that is part of the Faculty for Governance and Global affairs at Leiden University. Sarah specializes in public policy analysis focusing on policy implementation and capacity in the innovation, data and sustainability realm and she has been affiliated with the LDE Centre for BOLD Cities since the very beginning.

Could you maybe tell us more about your academic background and your expertise?

I am a political scientist by training, but I also have a master’s degree in Society, Science and Technology Studies. I did the two masters and my PhD in different countries. My first master was in Germany, then the Society, Science and Technology master was in Denmark and Sweden and I did my PhD in Canada. So, it has been really nice and interesting to see how university systems, interdisciplinary networks and education work in these different countries, and I learned a lot.

I think the Centre for BOLD Cities does a lot on citizen outreach, citizen-concerned topics, and also vulnerable populations.

My expertise is in government innovation, data, and policy. I'm trying to figure out how, why and for what the government uses data and how that translates into different services where data, and digital technologies are used. And then, to zoom in even further, I'm currently focused on who is left out if we do that and what happens in society if services are increasingly automated and faceless. Right now, I am working with a colleague from the field of Cultural Anthropology to focus on the Dutch context, and specifically on libraries because they're often an access point for people that need digital assistance and are an important aspect of the Dutch offline infrastructure. This research started separate from BOLD, but I thought there must be other people working on this. And my natural thought was: ‘Maybe someone at BOLD cities is working on this’ and indeed we are now starting up a collaboration with several colleagues at the Centre. I think the Centre does a lot on citizen outreach, citizen-concerned topics, and also vulnerable populations.

How did you get involved in the LDE Centre for BOLD Cities?

I was actually involved from the beginning. Together with someone from the Leiden University Centre for Innovation, we were part of the initial meetings when BOLD started up. I could feel the excitement, but I also thought that it was interesting that something like this wasn’t there before. But the topics appealed immediately, which is why I wanted to get involved. BOLD cities was also new in the sense that it was part of the excitement of ‘we can do so many things with the big open and linked data movement’. And then the realization came after of ‘Yes we can, but we can’t in terms of capacity and capabilities we have in government and also the risk of overlooking some of the vulnerable populations in our data’. So the Centre started up in this excitement, but also came to the realization that we have to look at things more nuanced. You see this in the projects that are currently running, like the one I am involved in about urban environment for vulnerable youth. That project is led by Prof. Carolien Rieffe, who is from the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University, and we work with LDE researchers from data science, architecture and myself, from public policy. It has an interdisciplinary view on how autistic youth in school yards behave in social settings, using new ways to measure how they are integrated and what they need. I feel like BOLD projects are often very much human centered and from there using, for example, new technologies, like sensor technology, to figure out how can we support the process that is already ongoing instead of coming at it with new technology to solve the problem.

Is an interdisciplinary approach important in the research you are involved in and how do you experience this at the Centre for BOLD Cities?

Yes, most definitely. I did interdisciplinary research basically from the get-go due to my different degrees. And I think as society grows more complex, one discipline really doesn't cut it. For me, working in the public policy field, for governments to solve issues, they need a multidisciplinary approach to issues. COVID is a good example of that. First you had the virus itself, so you needed specialists on the virus, but then it grew towards ‘what happens with education, what happens with mental health, what happens with exercise?’ So, you see how one issue spreads across disciplines and how it grows from there. Also, if you change one thing on one end, it might lead to something completely different that you did not foresee. By having these different disciplines involved you might be able to figure out some of the effects in these complex scenarios. But I think the Centre even goes beyond that. You have the different disciplines, but what the center also does, is that there are scholars from different career stages. It's really easy to have only professors coming together, but the center is open to having different career stages involved and is open also to these people attending the different events. And then you also have this wide cast network of stakeholders that are involved in certain projects. So I think it does a good job of not being exclusive to a certain group.