Online tools can help people in disasters, but do they represent everyone? (article in The Conversation)

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

 

Online tools can help people in disasters, but do they represent everyone?

Billy Tusker HaworthUniversity of ManchesterChristine EriksenUniversity of WollongongScott McKinnonUniversity of Wollongong

With natural hazard and climate-related disasters on the rise, online tools such as crowdsourced mapping and social media can help people understand and respond to a crisis. They enable people to share their location and contribute information.

But are these tools useful for everyone, or are some people marginalised? It is vital these tools include information provided from all sections of a community at risk.

Current evidence suggests that is not always the case.

Online tools let people help in disasters

Social media played an important role in coordinating response to the 2019 Queensland floods and the 2013 Tasmania bushfires. Community members used Facebook to coordinate sharing of resources such as food and water.

Crowdsourced mapping helped in response to the humanitarian crisis after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Some of the most useful information came from public contributions.

Twitter provided similar critical insights during Hurricane Irma in South Florida in 2017.

Research shows these public contributions can help in disaster risk reduction, but they also have limitations.

In the rush to develop new disaster mitigation tools, it is important to consider whether they will help or harm the people most vulnerable in a disaster.

Who is vulnerable?

Extreme natural events, such as earthquakes and bushfires, are not considered disasters until vulnerable people are exposed to the hazard.

To determine people’s level of vulnerability we need to know:

  1. the level of individual and community exposure to a physical threat
  2. their access to resources that affect their capacity to cope when threats materialise.

Some groups in society will be more vulnerable to disaster than others. This includes people with immobility issues, caring roles, or limited access to resources such as money, information or support networks.

When disaster strikes, the pressure on some groups is often magnified.

The devastating scenes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 revealed the vulnerability of children in such disasters.

Unfortunately, emergency management can exacerbate the vulnerability of marginalised groups. For example, a US study last year showed that in the years after disasters, wealth increased for white people and declined for people of colour. The authors suggest this is linked to inequitable distribution of emergency and redevelopment aid.

Policies and practice have until recently mainly been written by, and for, the most predominant groups in our society, especially heterosexual white men.

Research shows how this can create gender inequities or exclude the needs of LGBTIQ communitiesformer refugees and migrants or domestic violence victims.

We need to ask: do new forms of disaster response help everyone in a community, or do they reproduce existing power imbalances?

Unequal access to digital technologies

Research has assessed the “techno-optimism” – a belief that technologies will solve our problems – associated with people using online tools to share information for disaster management.

These technologies inherently discriminate if access to them discriminates.

In Australia, the digital divide remains largely unchanged in recent years. In 2016-17 nearly 1.3 million households had no internet connection.

Lower digital inclusion is seen in already vulnerable groups, including the unemployed, migrants and the elderly.

Global internet penetration rates show uneven access between economically poorer parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, and wealthier Western regions.

Representations of communities are skewed on the internet. Particular groups participate with varying degrees on social media and in crowdsourcing activities. For example, some ethnic minorities have poorer internet access than other groups even in the same country.

For crowdsourced mapping on platforms such as OpenStreetMap, studies find participation biases relating to gender. Men map far morethan women at local and global scales.

Research shows participation biases in community mapping activities towards older, more affluent men.

Protect the vulnerable

Persecuted minorities, including LGBTIQ communities and religious minorities, are often more vulnerable in disasters. Digital technologies, which expose people’s identities and fail to protect privacy, might increase that vulnerability.

Unequal participation means those who can participate may become further empowered, with more access to information and resources. As a result, gaps between privileged and marginalised people grow wider.

For example, local Kreyòl-speaking Haitians from poorer neighbourhoods contributed information via SMS for use on crowdsourced maps during the 2010 Haiti earthquake response.

But the information was translated and mapped in English for Western humanitarians. As they didn’t speak English, vulnerable Haitians were further marginalised by being unable to directly use and benefit from maps resulting from their own contributions.

Participation patterns in mapping do not reflect the true makeup of our diverse societies. But they do reflect where power lies – usually with dominant groups.

Any power imbalances that come from unequal online participation are pertinent to disaster risk reduction. They can amplify community tensions, social divides and marginalisation, and exacerbate vulnerability and risk.

With greater access to the benefits of online tools, and improved representation of diverse and marginalised people, we can better understand societies and reduce disaster impacts.

We must remain acutely aware of digital divides and participation biases. We must continually consider how these technologies can better include, value and elevate marginalised groups.

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Billy Tusker Haworth previously received funding from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
Christine Eriksen receives funding from the Australian Research Council (DE150100242, DP170100096).
Scott McKinnon has previously worked on projects funded by the Australian Research Council.
University of Wollongong provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.
University of Manchester provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
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Mapping together for improved healthcare delivery: the HCRI humanitarian mapathon, 2019

Maps, humanitarianism, and public participation

High quality and up-to-date maps and geographic information at appropriate spatial scales are vital for effectively preparing for and responding to disasters and humanitarian crises. Risk reduction activities, resource and service delivery, rescue and emergency care, information flows and risk communication, impact assessments and disaster recovery are all dependent on spatial information. In some parts of the world national/government maps, and even Google maps, are inadequate or incomplete, and alternative maps are required.

Public participation in mapping for disaster response and humanitarian crises has increased significantly in the last decade. Sometimes referred to as digital humanitarianism or digital volunteering, or more broadly volunteered geographic information (VGI), the practices of private citizens contributing geographic information for crisis management has been facilitated by technological advancements such as broadband internet and Web 2.0, cloud storage, GPS and smartphones.

Despite limitations, including digital divides and unequal online participation, and data quality concerns, among others, VGI has provided highly useful maps and geographic information to aid in a variety of humanitarian crises, with the use of OpenStreetMap in response to earthquakes in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) as key examples.

What is a mapathon?

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is an online, crowdsourced mapping platform – a bit like Google Maps but created by people like you! Volunteers work independently or collaboratively to add and edit content on the global digital map.

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Huts and villages in Uganda being mapped on OpenStreetMap

A mapathon is a bit like a ‘mapping party’, whereby people come together to complete a whole load of OSM mapping in a relatively short period of time. The idea being that with everyone working together in just a few hours we can make a BIG contribution! Importantly, mapathons are usually accompanied by free pizza and other fun snacks for the volunteers!

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Volunteers work together to add features to poorly-mapped regions

The HCRI humanitarian mapathon

In March 2019 we held our annual mapathon in the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), University of Manchester. With colleagues in Geography, we were aiming to contribute to an ongoing project coordinated by Dr Jonny Huck seeking to improve delivery of healthcare and prosthetic limbs to people who were mutilated during conflict in North Uganda. The mapping involved tracing basic information, such as people’s homes, on satellite photographs.

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No mapathon is complete without pizza!

Around 40 students, academic and support staff from HCRI and across the university volunteered to contribute ~20,000 features (roads, huts, buildings etc) to the poorly mapped region of Acholi in Uganda (Wow!). This open source mapping and data will directly help in reaching people with urgently needed healthcare.

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The HCRI humanitarian mapathon, University of Manchester, 2019

Mapping is also valuable to volunteers

“The mapathon was a great way to engage with people who have varying levels of map/geographic information systems (GIS) experience. The process of mapping roads, houses, tracks, buildings etc was very simple. The handouts of how to complete the tasks meant that it was straightforward and you constantly have a source to refer back to. The project as a whole meant that the time I gave felt worthwhile and like I was really making a difference to medical logistic teams in Uganda. I would highly recommend anyone to come along to the next event and get involved; it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours.
– Rach, HCRI MSc student.

“I think it was particularly useful for students of GIS and disasters, in which we critically analysed VGI to participate in the very digital volunteerism we were analysing. It was a more visceral and tangible demonstration of the quirks of geographic information that we were discussing in class (e.g. map projections) even if these particular quirks were relatively trivial.
It was nice to bring together people who I’d never seen before across the school and get a feel for what a larger group VGI volunteering effort looks like. I think a lot of people got a fair bit out of it, and I left the event feeling good. The software is super simple and easy to learn and having a few skilled people there to help when problems arose was enough to get everybody up and running.”
Mike, HCRI MSc student.

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Mapathons are enjoyable and rewarding for volunteers

Get involved!

YOU can contribute too!
You don’t need any prior mapping experience, just a computer and an internet connection, and you can map anytime. Visit http://huckathon.org/ to learn more about the North Uganda project and start mapping! Each feature you add to the map could mean a new limb for someone who has been injured by conflict. Better still; why not host your own mapathon?!

The HCRI mapathon was funded by the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures (SALC) Social Responsibility and Cultural Engagement fund, University of Manchester.

Geographic information and communication technologies for supporting smallholder agriculture. (#AGILE2018 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some work following my postdoc research in 2017, presenting lessons learned from review of information and communication technology initiatives for disseminating agricultural geographic information (AGI) direct to smallholder farmers, who increasingly face short and long term climate shocks and stresses. The poster was displayed at the 21st AGILE conference on Geo-information science, University of Lund, June 2018.
Download the PDF version here: AGILE_poster_Final_June2018

AGILE_poster_Final_June2018

Contributions of volunteered geographic information (VGI) to community disaster resilience: The good, the bad, and the uncertain. (#GISRUK2018 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some work following my PhD research into volunteered geographic information and disaster risk reduction. The work is co-authored by Eleanor Bruce and Josh Whittaker. It was displayed at the 26th GIScience Research UK Conference, University of Leicester, April 2018.
Download the PDF version here: Haworth et al_GISRUK2018_poster

Haworth et al_GISRUK2018_poster

Contributions of digital volunteering to community disaster resilience (BNHCRC Showcase, and AFAC/BNHCRC 2017 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some aspects of my PhD research into volunteered geographic information and disaster risk reduction. The research in the poster is co-authored by Eleanor Bruce and Josh Whittaker. It was displayed as part of the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) Research Showcase event in Adelaide, July 2017, and will also be presented at the AFAC/BNHCRC 2017 annual Fire & Emergency Management conference in Sydney, September 2017.
Download the full high-res version here (7MB): 79._billy_haworth

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‘Urban Homophobia: An Issue of Space’ – a 10-year old geography essay by yours truly.

Today while searching through some of my old undergrad uni material for a GIS map of sea-grass beds I thought I once made, I found this completely unrelated other thing I did: an essay I wrote as a 19-year old on sexuality and urban geography circa 2007/8.

Now, I have a number of criticisms of my own work. Here is a small list: I hope if I were to write this now I wouldn’t rely on so few references for my arguments; had I not heard of paragraph structure and the value of topic sentences?; an essay really should engage more critically in the ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’ of the observations described; the title is crap; stop using ‘supposedly’; never ever use the term ‘hets’ (for heterosexuals) – lol; if I were to write this again I would more confidently position myself at the centre of the arguments, perhaps drawing on personal experience (call this my ‘coming out’ if you like, we’ll have the party later – though, y’all who know me well know that I could write another whole essay on my issues with THAT concept!), rather than writing in the style of a 1950s, terrified, conservative Woman’s Weekly author.

However, despite those criticisms, I actually find most of these arguments still relevant today. When I first started reading the essay I laughed at myself. But, considering the “huge improvements” (said, ‘everyone’) that have occurred regarding the rights and experiences of homosexual people in societies in the last decade, I actually find it quite sad that I feel much of the points in the essay still hold relevance (at least in my experience/opinion). If anything, now, as a 29-year old man, rather than feeling liberated, I simply have more personal experience of ‘urban homophobia’. In fact, I sometimes feel more excluded than ever through being more aware of what is around me and the freedoms I don’t have ‘access’ to, what is implied by the things people say (“I didn’t mean it like that,” they say), and the persisting negative societal views (of some) towards ‘people like me’ that are made explicitly clear through things like the continuing same-sex marriage debate in my country – my ‘home’ (Australia). Let’s just think about that for a moment…

I’ve also included after the essay some powerpoint slides for a related presentation I gave in the same module. Take particular note of my incredible mapping prowess – the stuff of legends. Queue the lols. 

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University of Sydney School of Geosciences
GEOS 2122 – Urban Geography
Billy Haworth 

‘Urban Homophobia:  An Issue of Space’
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Historically, the city has been regarded as a space of social and sexual liberation because the urban is perceived to offer acceptance or at least an escape or anominity (Valentine et al., 2003).  However, it is often asserted that homosexuality should be confined to the supposedly private space of the home, and should not be displayed in public spaces (Kirby et al., 1997).  Why is there such clear distinction between what is appropriate for those that identify themselves as heterosexual and those that identify themselves as homosexual?  Many gay individuals perceive and experience their everyday lives with an undercurrent of gay suppression, from the work place, to social settings, or their own private homes.  Yet, in contrast heterosexuality is flaunted and celebrated in almost every situation.  Common spaces such as home, neighbourhood, work and public spaces are perceived and experienced by gay men as homophobic (Kirby et al., 1997).  So what constitutes a safe place for gay men to be themselves, and express their sexual identities openly without the fear of violence, verbal abuse, or isolation?  This paper aims to explore some of the contrasts between, and experiences related to, the issue of public versus private space for homosexual men in the city.

In certain areas of the city, it is evident that the ‘out’ life carries with it the threat of prejudice, persecution and physical attack, as well as the fear of isolation (Kirby et al., 1997).   For this reason, many gay men see their private homes as the only place they can be comfortable as their true selves.  One would assume that in one’s private home a homosexual man could feel safe enough to express his sexual identity openly.  However, even in their own homes, some gay men find that heteropatriarchy intrudes, for sexual identities at home are not only performed, they also come under surveillance (Johnston et al., 1995).  For the youth age-group going through puberty can be hard enough without the added confusion of understanding one’s sexual identity, and for some who perhaps haven’t ‘outed’ themselves to their family, life can be full of secrecy, fear, and isolation.  Constant questions from parents and family such as ‘so have you got a girlfriend yet?’ may seem trivial, but can add immense amounts of pressure to an individual, especially while discovering their perhaps non-heterosexual identities.  And even those who are ‘out’ can still be made to feel ashamed or isolated.  Those who choose to disclose their sexual identity risk rejection, abuse, and even exclusion from the family home (Kirby et al., 1997).  This is particularly the case with certain religious and ethnic identities.  Furthermore, even in the case of an accepting family it is not uncommon to find a homosexual couple let go hands when someone enters the room, for example.  So then why is it acceptable for a heterosexual couple to openly express themselves in front of friends and family, or indeed the general public?  For young people beginning to identify as lesbian or gay, the wider heterosexual family cannot necessarily provide appropriate support (Valentine et al,. 2003).  This confusion during youth is also compounded by the ignorance and uncertainty associated with the lack of acknowledgement of sexual identities and lifestyles within school education programs (Valentine et al., 2003).

These issues do not end in the family home however, even people living alone or with a partner ‘de-gay’ their homes to some extent for visitors who do not know they are gay, or those who would not be accepting, including tradespeople and the like (Kirby et al., 1997).  Regardless of whether openly gay or not, often gay magazines or movies are hidden away, certain photographs taken down and so on, just to create a particular ‘non-gay’  representation to visitors.  In extreme cases, some couples have a spare room set up to mislead certain visitors into believing that they do not in fact share a bed.  Some people can only imagine how dreadful a position to be in it is to have to hide part of yourself, or who you are, or what you do in your own supposed private space, just to feel safe or conform to a heterosexually-dominated societal attitude.  There is a heterosexual freedom in the home that in many cases is far from reciprocated in the gay man’s home. 

The same contrast between heterosexual freedom and the lack of homosexual freedom extends to the workplace, where it can become increasingly uncomfortable for a gay man to simply do his job based on how he feels homosexuality is perceived.  Sexuality is expressed strongly in places of employment and disclosure of homosexuality may hinder promotion prospects or lead, in some instances, to dismissal (Kirby et al., 1997).   But even before starting a job, one always questions whether it is necessary to disclose sexuality in a job interview, for example.  It is certainly not acceptable to acknowledge this, but not many people would deny that in certain cases people have been denied a position based on the disapproval of their sexuality.  Once in the workplace, if one is not open about his sexuality, he can then be subject to an uncomfortable situation, having to hide parts of himself, and perhaps not being able to actively participate in healthy activities such as workplace banter or certain colleague discussions.  Even for those who are ‘out’ at work, socializing within the workplace is often restricted because work colleagues generally do not offer the same support as they would offer other heterosexuals (Kirby et al., 1997).  Furthermore, it is extremely rare to see photos on an office desk of a same-sex couple.  This figure appears even more infrequent when compared to the celebration of the heterosexual family that is evident.  It is not to say that this heterosexual freedom is not welcomed, only that it should be extended to homosexuals, as these restrictions and suppressions are not healthy for the well-being of the gay man in the workplace.  Homosexual-friendly polices could even increase morale and productivity for a company.  Whilst certain perceptions and actions can severely impact the homosexual in the workplace, the effects do not end with that person, and numerous other employees can be affected in different ways, including feeling uncomfortable themselves.  For example fear of the consequences of being labelled homosexual by homophobic colleagues can prevent some ‘straight’ men from actively supporting homosexual issues and developing friendly relationships with gay men (Kirby et al., 1997). 

The same issues are prominent in public space.  Heterosexuals have the freedom to express their emotions physically in public space, and in contrast some gay men feel the need to modify and monitor behaviour in order to conceal their sexual identity and so to avoid antigay abuse (Kirby et al., 1997).  Gay spaces in major cities have become clearly defined districts that are successful at attracting gay clientele, but which have also become popular as venues for heterosexual clubbers and tourists (Valentine et al., 2003).  This is even the case with Sydney’s prominent ‘gay ghetto,’ Oxford Street.  While there are still some obviously gay establishments, many of the places have become, or are becoming more and more heterosexual space as well.  There is no problem with ‘hets’ and ‘gays’ mixing, however these kinds of places have traditionally been somewhere many gay people go to escape the confines and pressures of hiding their sexual identity, and a place where they can feel comfortable with people in a similar situation and frame of mind.  When in ‘gay space’ many people feel less inclined to suppress parts of the gay culture, and feel comfortable expressing themselves in public, as heterosexual couples would.  Lees said in 1994, that over 80% of gays in Sydney go to gay bars, with the most popular on Oxford Street and in Newtown.  An important part of gay men’s lives could be lost or altered with the intrusion of heterosexuality into what many regard as ‘their space’.  Many gay men alter their appearance and behaviour to fit into public space, and places like Oxford Street can provide more freedom to be oneself away from the confines of their often heterosexually dominated lives.   However, in these apparent ‘safe-gay’ areas, discrimination and abuse still occurs.  There have been instances of people being removed from clubs in Newtown for their homosexual behaviour, verbal ‘drive-by’ abuse from cars on Oxford street, and even stories of physical abuse in back-alleys during the (in)famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which is supposed to be a celebration of alternative sexual lifestyles.  This highlights another issue related to the comparison between homosexual and heterosexual freedom, which is championed by Jackson (1989) when he states that territorial concentration leaves gay people vulnerable to harassment and other forms of repression.  Lees also said in 1994 that 15% of Australians use illegal substances, while 35% of gays do regularly.  Gay men often do not feel they ‘fit’ in the heterosexual environments, and drugs such as Ecstasy help to further the distance between the realities of the heteronormative everyday world and the (gay) ‘scene’ (Valentine et al., 2003).  Partying and drug taking in gay spaces is used as an escape for many gay men. 

Perhaps a daylight equivalent to the gay space of the nightclub could be seen as the beach, with 69% of gay men in Sydney in 1994 claiming to be regular attendees (Lees, 1994).  The beach has the same element of public expression of sexuality as the gay bar, with gay people less likely to hide things or feel uncomfortable if they are out and surrounded by other gays in a popular public space, like certain ‘gay friendly’ beaches in Sydney such as Bondi.  This ‘freedom’ is far from equal to that of heterosexuals however, as it is only limited to comparatively small spaces, and is not reciprocated in every social setting.  The places where gay men can meet others and express themselves freely are increasingly restricted.  Further to this, it should not be the case that some gay men feel it necessary to alter or conceal their identity, just to live a normal public life, free of fear, in the same way most heterosexuals can.  Having to act straight to ensure one’s personal safety clearly restricts gay men’s freedoms to use public space (Kirby et al., 1997). 

In all these settings, whether it be the home, work, or public space, there is an underlying discourse that heterosexuality is acceptable in public space, while homosexuality should be confined to private space, where even then it is not safe from surveillance or attack.  Heterosexuals are free to express themselves at work, and at home, and even have their lifestyle celebrated in public space with events such as weddings and christenings.  In contrast, gay men often alter their own ‘private’ homes to portray a different image of themselves than the reality due to fear of disapproving people.  They often have their values suppressed in the workplace, and are not open to interact and actively express ideas, again due to fear of others attitudes which could alter their well-being at work, or even hinder their career prospects.  Homosexuality is rarely accepted in public space in the way that heterosexuality is, and often as a result ‘gay spaces’ develop to accommodate their need for free expression and escapism, yet these spaces are too prone to heterosexual invasion and even violent abuse.  The point here is not that heterosexuals should not have this freedom.  In fact it is far from it.  The question is why such an exaggerated difference between what is acceptable in public space for heterosexuals and homosexuals?  If heterosexuals are in any way discomforted by seeing homosexual behaviour in public, do they not think that perhaps homosexuals feel discomfort not only associated with the heterosexual flooding of their lives, but also by the suppression of their own lifestyle, and having to alter or hide parts of themselves simply to feel safe in public?  Homosexuality is not a new thing.  It is not going to hurt anyone.  Its presence in public space will not alter or impede others lives.  It is a normal and very real part of modern urban life, and yet it is still not accepted in so many public and even private spaces.  The question remains, why not?

References

Jackson, P. (1989) Maps of Meaning, London, Unwin Hyman (Chapter 5).

Johnston, L., and G. Valentine. 1995. Wherever I lay my girlfriend, that’s my home. The performance and surveillance of lesbian identities in domestic environments. In Mapping Desire, ed. D. Bell and G. Valentine, 99–113. London: Routledge.

Kirby, S and Hay, I (1997) “(Hetero) sexing Space: Gay Men and ‘Straight’ Space in Adelaide, South Australia”, Professional Geographer, 49, 295-305.

Leese, A. (1994) “We’re everywhere but where?” Sydney Star Observer, 28 January, 15-16.

Valentine, G. and Skelton, T. (2003) “Finding oneself, losing oneself: the lesbian and gay ‘scene’ as a paradoxical space” in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4): 849-866.

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Using participatory mapping to increase community engagement in bushfire preparation (AFAC/BNHCRC 2016 conference poster + presentation + award)

Recently I was fortunate to attend the annual Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council/Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (AFAC/BNHCRC) conference in Brisbane, Queensland. I gave an oral presentation and presented a poster from some of my PhD research. And here the poster is for you to look at for free and keep forever!

Download Pdf: haworth_2016_afac_poster
The extended abstract for the oral presentation is also available to download: haworth_afac16_extended-abstract

haworth_2016-raf_afac_poster

At the conference I was also awarded a Special Recognition Award from the BNHCRC for promoting the organisation and emergency management research in Australia and overseas; effective science communication through exceptional industry relationships, active blogging and social media activities; and a willingness to support the CRC and other students, often leading by example. It was unexpected and I am very thankful for the acknowledgement. True to the spirit of the award, I thought I should include it in a blog post. 🙂

And here is a couple of stills of me presenting taken from a video summary of the conference.
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