A public administrator engaging with engineers, data scientists, mathematicians and architects
As a student of public administration, Marie Helen Ferdelman discovered the added value – and the fun – of fusing her own field with science and technology while working on her Bachelor’s thesis. Her topic: public opinion formation in two post-disaster reconstruction projects. ‘I found myself working with students and professors from completely different fields. What surprised me was not just the range of disciplines I ran into, but especially how easy and necessary it was for us to collaborate.
‘Pretty logical, if you think about it’
Marie Helen’s research took her to the heart of two post-disaster areas: the Roombeek neighbourhood here in Enschede – which was largely destroyed by an exploding firework depot in 2000 – and the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, which in 2012 suffered severe flooding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Marie Helen wanted to find out whether public opinion in the two cities’ post-disaster resilience projects developed the way the prevalent theories suggested it would. In short, it did not. ‘In both projects, unexpected, external factors popped up that had not been taken into account in the theories.’
At least as surprising as the outcome of her research was the diversity of disciplines she encountered along the way, she notes. ‘Especially in the Hoboken project, I actively engaged with civil engineers, data scientists, mathematicians, architects and many others outside my field. It’s pretty logical, if you think about it. Recovering from a disaster – or coming up with measures to prevent recurrence, the main focus in Hoboken – inevitably involves all of those disciplines. So whatever aspect you focus on as a public administrator, you’re going to have to immerse yourself in many of these fields.’
Technology literacy is vital
Marie Helen is currently an intern with Democrats Abroad in Germany, a branch of the USA’s Democratic Party. Her aim is to gain work experience in a political environment. ‘The role of technology is not prominent in my current work – except maybe in things like database management and social media activities. But I hope it will be in whatever I do in the future. Literacy in technology is vital nowadays, especially in public administration. Until Hoboken, I hadn’t experienced how enriching cross-disciplinary work can be. Communicating with technology experts can be challenging, of course. You have to learn to navigate between what is technically possible and what is practically, politically, or economically achievable. But that’s half the fun.’