Using data to raise environmental awareness

Kirsten Armstrong routinely uses data for good, most recently to help promote climate solutions. Kirsten’s influential work was highlighted in the award-winning documentary The Power of Activism, released last month.

Kirsten, Principal at Taylor Fry and Chief Editor of Actuaries Digital, discussed her involvement in the documentary, her eye-opening findings and what compelled her to get involved in the following interview.

Actuaries Digital: Thank you for joining us today, Kirsten. For those hearing about it for the first time, what is The Power of Activism and how did it come about?

Kirsten Armstrong: The Power of Activism tells the story of six young activists and their work to support nature, biodiversity and to protect the planet. Each of the six activists has a different focus for the things that they’re trying to protect, save or change: one activist was central to the school strikes for climate; another activist is protecting sharks; and another is focusing on supporting Indigenous culture and practices through wellness retreats. The documentary explores the economic and social impact of the outcomes they seek.

Actuaries Digital: So how did you get involved?

Kirsten Armstrong: Martin Mulcare, who is a fellow actuary, chairs The Growth Project, which supports charities and business leaders through mentoring circles. Through that, he met the director of this documentary and helped shape a new concept for the documentary, to focus on the financial impact of the activists’ work. So, the documentary tries to estimate the financial value of the work that the women are doing. So, if they’re able to achieve the changes that they’re seeking, what will be the financial impact or economic impact on society of achieving that. So obviously they needed someone with some financial know-how to come in and help work with these women to try to estimate that impact. So, Martin connected me to the group.

Actuaries Digital: What was the extent of your involvement?

Kirsten Armstrong: I originally thought my involvement was going to be behind the scenes, but in practice, I’m more central to the storyline than I expected. We did a number of workshops throughout 2020 and 2021 to bring everyone together, to understand their projects, understand the impacts they’re trying to achieve, and then map out a way to estimate what the costs and benefits might be. And then there was a lot of work behind the scenes to convert all of that into dollar estimates.

Kirsten Armstrong (left) brainstorming with activist ASHLEY AVCI. SOURCE: The Power of Activism.

Actuaries Digital: So, what compelled you to get involved?

Kirsten Armstrong: The issues the six activists are addressing are really important and issues that I am passionate about. And I’ve never been involved in a documentary before, so I was interested to learn how the whole documentary process works.

Actuaries Digital: In what way did you apply your actuarial skillset to solve a problem or multiple problems?

Kirsten Armstrong: I was able to work with each of the women to really understand how their projects worked, the data that they had to track the impact of their projects, what they were trying to achieve, and then use my experience, working on similar costing studies, to develop a framework that set out for each of the projects, what the potential economic and financial benefits might be.

My plan was to leverage existing research as much as possible, because doing a full cost-benefit study of each project is incredibly resource intensive.

So what we wanted to do was harness other people’s detailed cost-benefit studies, and make best use of the data each of the women had collected to link their work to the findings of other people’s research.

You don’t want to spend $700,000 on an economic cost-benefit study if you don’t have to. You want to just use your information better.

Actuaries Digital: How long did it take you to formulate the solutions?

Kirsten Armstrong: The first time we met was mid-2020. Before that I did a little background research to understand the projects and get a sense of what existing research would be available. Then I went away and did a lot of analysis, liaising with the women to get more data and information about their projects. We came together again in late-2020, to present the results.

I think the producer and director might have had unrealistic expectations initially, that somehow we’d come together over a weekend and I would be able to estimate the impact of everyone’s projects over a single weekend. That just simply wasn’t going to happen across six really disparate projects.

Actuaries Digital: What were some of the top-level findings?

Kirsten Armstrong: Watch the film!

One observation is that some projects are easier to ‘measure’ than others. It’s much easier to measure the impact of direct activity projects, and much harder to measure the impact of advocacy.

For example, Boomerang Bags is about using waste fabric to create bags and sell those so that people don’t use single-use plastic bags. So that’s directly measurable. You can count all the bags that have been sold, estimate the number of single-use plastic bags which were avoided because of that, and put a dollar value on the volume of plastic and fabric waste avoided and downstream pollution. So they’re very, very measurable.

We were able to estimate a $300 million economic benefit from that whole program, because it’s been rolled out to some 1,500 communities across the globe.

Maddie’s project involves converting fishermen in the shark fin trade into tourism instead, as a way to save sharks. And again, that’s very measurable. You can count the number of sharks that might be killed each year through these boats, what the value of selling them is. And you can also count the dollar value of tourism if you’re able to convert the boat to a tourism boat instead. So again, we were able to estimate the gross economic value of tourism of around $200,000 per boat, per annum, all very measurable.

The impact of advocacy is much harder to measure. We can cost the problem that the activists are trying to change – there’s a multitude of reports that estimate the financial consequences of inaction on climate change for example, or we can work out the value of the healthcare impact and environmental damage from each pig grown for meat ($1,500 a pig if you’re interested).

But what we can’t do is say, “What’s been the impact of the advocacy?”, “How many pigs weren’t eaten because of the advocacy?” or “How much change in climate action have we caused through the school strike for climate?”

So, advocacy projects are simply a lot harder to measure.

Lastly, there’s more research in some areas than others, so some impacts are easier to estimate. Health impacts are one area that is well researched and there’s a standard ‘currency’ called a disability-adjusted life year (DALY) that is used to measure it. 10% of GDP is spent on healthcare in Australia so there’s rigorous methods to understand if we’re getting value for money.

But for other areas like environment, climate change, lost biodiversity, we actually don’t have good tools yet to put a value on that. It’s just developing. So, a lot of the estimates that I came up with were very heavy in terms of health impacts because they’re well measured, and much lighter in terms of the environmental impacts, because we just don’t measure them well right now.

And of course, as all good actuaries would do, each of the women went away with a list of a few data items that it will be helpful to collect and monitor over time, to help better demonstrate their impact.

Actuaries Digital: Where would this project rank among your career highlights?

Kirsten Armstrong: It was great fun to be involved. It was energising to work with these women, and really interesting to find out how documentaries are made. I loved it. This was by far the highlight of my work in 2020 and 2021 and now seeing people’s response to the documentary is awesome.

Actuaries Digital: So, would you do it again?

Kirsten Armstrong: Of course!

Find out more about The Power of Activism.

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