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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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

Australian Marriage Equality: Why I cried today, and then cried some more.

The Australian parliament passed marriage equality into law today. As I walked to work on a cold, grey morning in Manchester, UK, I cried. I’ve shed the odd tear in public many times before imagining this day. But today I cried, and I cried, and then I cried some more. I sobbed in my office until I was physically exhausted.

I cried because I and everybody else in my country who has lived a life of being ‘different’, ‘less’ or ‘not worthy’ due to no choice of our own, purely for who we might love, are now, by law, the same, equal, and as worthy as anybody else to marry who we choose.

I cried because the years I have struggled and campaigned for this, the years my friends have struggled and campaigned for this, and the many years before us that many others have fought for this equality, many without seeing the reward, have not been for nothing.

I cried because of the efforts of so many around the country to make this happen. I cried for the little boy in Sydney who wanted to use a sky-writer to tell people to vote yes, and I cried for the teenager in Bega who distributed rainbow socks to anybody he could get to wear them in support – both far too young to actually vote themselves.

I cried for the children and teens now and in the future, queer or otherwise, who won’t grow up in the Australian society I did.

I cried because all those people who called me names, spat at me, threatened me, excluded me, and even probably hated me, just because of my perceived sexuality, cannot put me down anymore; I am now part of the majority.

I cried because the woman who lived next door to me and who, when as a teenager my soccer ball hit the fence, screeched at me “poofter” and “faggot”, her words cutting me like knives as I ran and hid in my bedroom, may one day watch over that same fence as I marry a man in the back garden. I may be a poofter or I may not be; whatever I am, I am proud of it, and I will not hide anymore.

I cried because I am happy. I cried because I am proud.

I cried because I am relieved, and so, so exhausted.

I cried because some people still said no.

I cried because everything still hurts.

I cried because many of the people who I love and care about so much will never fully understand how this feels, nor can they fully understand how I have felt all these years. Today we can celebrate together, but it doesn’t erase how lonely I have been, not yet at least.

I cried because I. Am. Okay.

I cried because things will be better.

I cried because, at least for a moment in this crazy and often hurtful world, love wins.

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

HAWORTH_bnhcrc-poster-2017

Research summary: DIGITAL VOLUNTEERING IN DISASTER RISK REDUCTION: AN OPPORTUNITY OR A CHALLENGE?

Recently I undertook the useful but challenging task of summarizing my ~70,000 word PhD thesis into a few hundred words for the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC Hazard Notes publication (Download pdf).

It was a useful task because science communication and research dissemination are important to me, particularly to areas outside the world of academic journals, and a 2-page research summary can be more effective for reaching emergency management practices, policy makers, or even the general public. It can also be easily shared and re-shared on social media to even wider audiences.

It was also a challenging task though, as my PhD research is still relatively fresh, it was difficult to choose just a few *key* findings to share. “But it’s all such excellent work! Why wouldn’t everybody want to read every word!?” Hardly :p 😉
That’s not entirely true. I did (and do) have a pretty clear idea of what my key major findings are, and so I should having only recently completed the work and distilled it into presentations and journal articles. Nevertheless, it was a challenge to summarize large volumes of diverse content into very, very tight word limits. Its a challenge I highly recommend others take up, not only to increase the accessibility of your work, but it also helped me further clarify for myself what exactly are the important messages from my broader research, and, importantly, why. For me, these vary depending on context and audience, and they may for others too.

Hazard Note 28 covers my PhD research findings into the role of volunteered geographic information in fostering community engagement in disaster risk reduction. In recent years, information from community members contributed online has proved highly useful in emergencies. Information sharing activities by private citizens using social media, smartphones, and web mapping tools have been termed volunteered geographic information (VGI), or digital volunteering. This research examined the potential role of VGI in fostering community engagement in bushfire preparation.

There are many opportunities, challenges and implications of VGI in emergency management, much broader than just bushfire. Findings show that VGI is more than just technology – it is about people sharing their knowledge and mapping collaboratively as a social practice. It presents opportunities for citizen empowerment in line with shared responsibility, but also challenges with power moving away from the traditional command and control of emergency services.

This research provides a clearer path for emergency service agencies to best-utilise these technologies for and with communities, helping to increase volunteering sustainability, community engagement and disaster resilience.

Talking partnerships in emergency management (AFAC2016 conference)

(My contribution at 3mins)