Researching experiences of gender and sexual minorities during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr Billy Tusker Haworth
Pronouns: he/him or they/them
Lecturer in International Disaster Management

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion representative
Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute,
University of Manchester
Email: billy.haworth@manchester.ac.uk
Website: www.billyhaworth.com
Twitter: @BillyTusker
Main research areas: geography, critical and
participatory GIS, disaster vulnerability, queer
marginality, graffiti and spaces of conflict/peace

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Warning: the following may contain topics which some LGBTIQ+ readers may find distressing.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe and we in the UK were sent into lockdown in March, scrambling to work from home and continue living our lives in the face of much uncertainty, I saw a unique opportunity.

I had already begun exploring the experiences of gender and sexual minorities during disasters theoretically with colleagues in Australia, and had been considering future potential case studies. Suddenly I was presented with the chance to conduct primary research during a live crisis that would undoubtedly impact minority groups in profound, and likely insufficiently documented ways. Moreover, I was experiencing the crisis at the same time, also as a member of minority groups, being a migrant to the UK and identifying as queer (though I completely acknowledge the class and race (white) privileges I receive). I felt I was in a position to make a contribution to understanding the experiences of marginalised gender and sexual minorities and to hopefully suggest improvements for more inclusive response strategies for future public health or other crises.

Since gaining University ethics approval in April, I have been conducting detailed interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer+ (LGBTIQ+) people over Zoom in the UK and Brazil, with help from my Brazilian research assistant Tiago de Paula Muniz for interviews in Portuguese. There are of course various limitations to this method, not least inequalities associated with internet access, with often marginalised people having the least access to such information and communication technologies, particularly in Brazil, thus influencing participation patterns. However, overall we have gained important insights from a wide variety of people within the LGBTIQ+ community. Though interviews are still ongoing and detailed data analysis is yet to be completed, in this post I wish to share some of the preliminary insights we have gained so far.

Research background

LGBTIQ+ identities are often not considered in disaster and humanitarian strategies, yet they experience unique vulnerabilities linked to inequality and marginalisation.

Prior to COVID-19, LGBTIQ+ people already faced increased risk of anxiety and suicide and disproportionate rates of insecure employment and housing. Research and policies tend to treat gender and sexual minorities as homogeneous, overlooking diversity. This can contribute to further inequalities, with the voices of more visible groups, such as gay men, viewed as representing all LGBTIQ+ experiences. Further, little research or policy attention has been given to coping capacities and resilience of LGBTIQ+ individuals and communities. Revelation of such experiences is particularly important when key aspects of community resilience, such as social connectedness, are being disrupted and eroded through social distancing and lockdowns.

The UK and Brazil represent different social, cultural, economic and political contexts on which the same crisis (coronavirus) is impacting, which provides a unique opportunity to uncover common learnings and important differences in experiences and responses. For example, in the UK, gender identity and sexuality are protected characteristics under the Equality Act and require special consideration, whereas despite advances, LGBTIQ+ people in Brazil still experience discrimination and exclusion without adequate protections; Brazil has some of the highest rates globally of homophobia and transphobia related deaths.

The pandemic has had devastating impacts on LGBTIQ+ populations in both contexts. For instance, in the UK LGBTIQ+ people have reported experiencing increased mental health challenges, isolation, substance misuse, financial difficulties, and reduced access to health and support services. In Brazil, job losses and social and economic exclusion have been severe for gender and sexual minorities, and without effective action from the Bolsonaro government LGBTIQ+ people have had to turn to informal peer support to survive, including communal squat housing.

Initial insights from interviews

Isolation

Through our interviews to date we have learnt of people stuck living for months with family who do not accept their gender or sexual identity, through intersection with faith and other reasons. Isolation from supportive people and identity-affirming spaces has caused significant heightened stress and mental health concerns for some LGBTIQ+ people.

Access to medical care

Transgender people have told me how their medical care, both essential and elective, relating to gender reassignment and their identities has been delayed if not halted completely, often without adequate notice, adding to already-long waiting periods and highlighting a lack of appropriate care for such patients during the pandemic. I’ve learnt of exacerbated gender dysphoria resulting from people being at home with their bodies, seeing their bodies more, having less external incentive to dress or prepare their bodies in particular ways (e.g. chest binding), and with reduced access to support.

Technology

Many of us have benefited from technology during this time, using platforms like Zoom to reduce social isolation by connecting with family, friends, colleagues and other online support. But these benefits are not shared across populations equally, with some of our participants being without access to computers or reliable internet. Further, some described anxiety associated with these platforms and the required mental and physical effort to prepare and present themselves in order to be read as their correct gender over a video call, for example. This demonstrates an important link with identity that is less likely to be experienced by non-trans or non-queer people.

Lack of inclusion and support

A common theme emergent in both UK and Brazil interviews is dissatisfaction with government responses to the pandemic. In the UK people described how they didn’t see themselves, their diverse family makeups, or their lifestyles reflected in government guidance and risk communication, with priorities seemingly cis-heteronormative (e.g. a focus on heterosexual couples with school-aged kids). In Brazil people have described feeling forgotten, like they are being left to die or else find their own means of protecting themselves, with clear guidance and support from authorities lacking.

Some people have told me they don’t know how long they can go on like this, as they face issues like insecure housing, reduced work and income, and isolation. This applies to both the UK and Brazil, as described both by affected individuals and people who have been working in LGBTIQ+ support organisations.

We have also heard stories of resilience, kindness, and mutual aid, with people drawing on their existing coping capacities and collective resources to help others.

Resilience and coping capacities

Some people described how they were able to monitor and manage their personal wellbeing during the pandemic by using indicators and strategies developed through past experiences of distress or marginalisation, such as adopting regular daily routines, maintaining healthy diet and monitoring alcohol consumption, exercising, or talking about their challenges and feelings to friends or therapists.

Networks and community

Existing and new networks and community groups have proven vital for LGBTIQ+ people, providing mutual aid and safe and identity-affirming (online) spaces to share experiences and connect with others. Organisations like Hidayah, which offers support and community for LGBTIQ+ people of Islam faith, have had to move all their activities online. But this has also allowed them to reach audiences much further afield, such as in the Middle East and the US, forging new connections and providing social aid and assistance in new and diverse ways.

Similarly, the queer community group in Manchester, Queer Family Tea, usually holds a weekly in-person alcohol-free meet up with food, activities and entertainment, often for young LGBTIQ+ people seeking an alternative to the “gay scene” of Canal Street to connect with likeminded people. During COVID they have shifted online with weekly meet-ups, online cabarets, life drawing classes and other workshops. As with Hidayah, they have seen many new people joining, and some of those involved have said that running and organising such activities has given them a much-needed sense of purpose and life-motivation in what would otherwise be difficult and lonely times. Responses to future crises should not only better-recognise the unique challenges faced by gender and sexual minorities, but look to support and grow existing resilience, coping and mutual aid capacities.

Societal pressure

For some the pandemic has also provided temporary relief from some of the pressures of “normal life”, such as societal pressures to conform to binary gender roles or the public scrutiny of trans bodies. One participant who had come out publicly as transgender just before the pandemic suggested they wouldn’t mind the lockdown to last a bit longer as it was allowing time for them to transition and become more comfortable with their own body and its changes away from the outside world – the pandemic as an escape. This isn’t to suggest they were insensitive to the challenges many have faced during lockdowns. Rather, it highlights the pressure and challenges that queer people already confront in daily life and reminds us that crises such as a pandemic do not necessarily create marginalisation and vulnerabilities so much as they expose and exacerbate those already present across our societies.

Despite the risks of the pandemic, communities came together for the Trans+ Pride March in London, protesting against inequalities experienced by transgender people in “normal” life.
Photo credit: Steve Eason, 12 September 2020.

Diversity and intersectionality

Experiences of COVID-19 across the LGBTIQ+ community remind us that the queer population is incredibly diverse. Our interviews have highlighted important differences between LGBTIQ+ sub-groups. For example, in general cisgender gay white males experienced less financial, employment and housing instability compared to others (of course this isn’t to say they haven’t also faced challenges). Recognition of such uneven privilege was especially prominent in the Brazilian interviews.

There is also great diversity within those subgroups, and of course it’s not the case that every lesbian or every intersex person, for instance, has the same experience as all others. To many readers these ideas won’t be new, but in practice LGBTIQ+ people are still largely described and treated as one group (including to some extent by me in this post).

I find the concept of intersectionality useful in adding nuance to our understandings of minority experiences and vulnerabilities. Stemming from black feminist activism scholarship, intersectionality can help us see how different characteristics (and axes of oppression) intersect to shape a person’s lived experiences and marginalisation, such as by examining the relationships between gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, education, disability, religion, and more. While I agree there are good justifications for regarding LGBTIQ+ people as one community in many respects, overlooking the diversity of experiences can result in ineffective policies. I don’t pretend that developing strategies aimed at such diverse populations is easy, but to more effectively reduce vulnerabilities for minority groups we must give these issues greater consideration.

Reflections on positionality and the research process

Being queer and experiencing a pandemic at the same time as researching queer experiences of COVID-19 has been insightful but also challenging. I refer specifically to challenges of dealing with heavy topics and the need for self-care. Sometimes during interviews I feel like I am listening to my own friends. Many of the experiences we are hearing about, such as isolation or increased stress, are close to our own lives. Tiago and I are also living in the UK away from our families during the pandemic, who are in Brazil and Australia respectively. Our ‘family’ here is very much other queer people, a kind of chosen family away from home. The overlap of research subject with personal life has been confronting at times.

We’ve learnt some strategies to help us process what are sometimes difficult and saddening interviews. It’s important to ensure we have time to decompress (so don’t do multiple interviews back-to-back or in the evening before bed!), and we are fortunate we can talk to each other about how the interviews made us feel.

But I also recognise my relative privilege compared to many of our participants, in that I have relatively secure income, housing, access to friends and resources etc…which coupled with the stories people tell me motivates me even more to continue the research, despite difficult topics at times. Tiago says the same for the interviews in Brazil. He describes the motivation of giving voice to people who often don’t have one. I have also benefited from that queer community support and collective resilience described above in helping me cope with the pandemic. It also helps me ground and understand what is happening to and around me at this time, as a citizen, a queer person, and as a researcher. As scholars, I think we ought to think about these issues more critically, particularly regarding mental health for those researchers working in the disaster and humanitarian sector.

What next?

I have felt incredibly privileged to hear people’s stories. People are giving me their time, energy and honest reflections during what is a difficult period for everybody, and I now have a responsibility to do something meaningful with the data.

Awareness of the dynamic and diverse challenges LGBTIQ+ people face is critical to foster change for improved outcomes, and so it is essential to produce not only academic research outputs, but materials aimed at policymakers, NGOs and activist groups already working with marginalised communities in a language and format they can use.

Currently I am in the midst of transcribing and analysing interviews and will then begin preparing journal articles and policy briefs in English and Portuguese, as well as communications for wider public audiences. I would eventually like to see the research contributing to improved policies and responses, which could include more targeted funding and relief, tailored mental health support, and approaches that recognise the intersecting and compounding effects of multiple characteristics, such as gender and sexuality with race, disability, income, and more – providing alternatives to inefficient ‘one size fits all’ approaches.

Need support?

If you are LGBTIQ+ and experiencing distress during COVID-19, you could consider contacting one of the following organisations for support:

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

Views on challenges for disaster management research, policy and practice: a call for new perspectives

Dr Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer and Programme Director MSc International Disaster Management, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.
E: billy.haworth@manchester.ac.uk, Twitter: @BillyTusker
This post originally appeared on the HCRI blog.

Disaster management, in theory and in practice, is complex to say the least. While there are many things that are done well and are well-understood, many challenges remain for researchers, policy makers, and emergency practitioners. Even as a Lecturer in Disaster Management and Programme Director for a Masters programme specifically focused on International Disaster Management, I do not purport to be an expert on most aspects of the field. Drawing from my own research and wider reading, teaching, observations made at academic and industry conferences, and experiences with emergency organisations, my aim for this post is to reflect on four aspects of disaster management that I think are problematic, challenging for the field, or in need of improvement for more effective disaster management. These words are merely one academic’s musings on where further research and/or policy attention may be warranted, and I welcome any comments or discussions from others.

  1. Can we bounce past resilience yet?
    The concept of resilience has come into vogue in disaster research and practice over the past decade and now dominates policy agendas throughout the world (e.g. Sendai framework). Resilience has great merit in application to disaster management in theory.  It is not difficult to see how either of the most popular conceptualisations of resilience can be useful in aiding understanding of disasters; resilience as the ability of a system (or community, or individual) to either absorb stress and resist significant disruption (social-ecological perspective), or to ‘bounce back’ to normal functioning following a shock (engineering perspective). However, the application of these concepts to disaster management, both in policy interpretations and in practical measures to ‘build’ resilience, remains a challenge.There are numerous extant critiques of resilience in the disaster literature, many of which I agree with. These include, among others, a lack of consensus over what resilience actually is, that resilience definitions routinely combine elements of both ecological and engineering resilience (such as the definition adopted by UNISDR) but these are actually somewhat contradictory ideas, that measuring resilience is too difficult, and the question of whether it is appropriate for people to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-disaster conditions, which for many may be a highly vulnerable and undesirable state. The counter to this last critique has been proposals of revised interpretations of resilience as ‘building back better’ or ‘bouncing forward’.For me the central problem with resilience lies in a series of disconnects. I perceive a disconnect between what resilience refers to in academic conceptualisations and how these are interpreted and applied in disaster policies, and I see a further disconnect between resilience in policy and what it looks like, or how it is implemented and/or achieved in practice. I have heard numerous emergency practitioners in Australia and the UK say in public forums that they do not know what resilience is, or that the field is struggling to comprehend resilience approaches, yet these are the people responsible for implementing (and often devising) policies centred around resilience. I myself often find it difficult to see concrete connections between the theoretical understandings of resilience in academic literature and ‘resilience building activities’ in practice, which often appear to be increasingly about shifting the responsibility of emergency agencies over to the public. It is often unclear in resilience policies how one should go about actually implementing ‘resilience building’ at all. This, I argue, causes confusion, and without clear means for achieving the goals of resilience policies, they remain ineffective and draw attention away from developing more meaningful approaches.

    Whether resilience is just a buzzword, or whether or not policy interpretations and implementations align with academic theory may or may not be important, if whatever the strategies are in practice achieve their aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities. But in terms of the amount of attention given to the concept in research and in practice versus the measurable benefits for reducing disaster impacts, perhaps it is time we moved the debate on and bounced right on past resilience (in theory, at least).

  1. Can we more meaningfully include the public in disaster risk reduction?
    Coupled with the growing resilience agenda has been a push to increase community engagement in disaster risk reduction, with research demonstrating that information dissemination alone is insufficient for meaningful risk reduction and disaster preparedness action. Approaches centred on community engagement are becoming increasingly present in emergency organisations, likely with varying success (the Tasmania Fire Service’s Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods programme appears to me to be one of the better ones).

mapping Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods community engagement activities: participatory mapping (image credit: Billy Haworth).

In Australia and elsewhere, the push for increased community engagement presents in concert with broader policy agendas of shared responsibility. As a policy shared responsibility emphasises that the burden of emergency management and risk reduction should be shouldered by all parties involved, including national, state, and local government, as well as other stakeholders, businesses, communities, households and individuals, while recognising that the weight of responsibility and expected tasks looks different for these different groups. Similar to my thoughts on resilience, I argue there are differences between shared responsibility and community engagement in theory and policy and how they appear in practice. Scholars have critiqued shared responsibility as being more akin to the public ‘doing what agencies want them to’ (like creating their own emergency plans in order to better-help themselves), rather than sharing of much at all, and state that in order to share responsibility for disaster resilience, control over risk management decisions, actions and processes also needs to be shared. In disaster management at present, this largely doesn’t occur.

When citizens are engaged in disaster management and have been involved by their own volition, they are often seen as problematic or disruptive by authorities, as has been the case with some instances of spontaneous volunteering or the public’s use of social media during crises. While a policy shift has occurred from response to disaster risk reduction and resilience building (community engagement) over the last decade or so, I believe considerable cultural change in emergency organisations is still required to more meaningfully value and incorporate citizens and their knowledge into disaster risk reduction.

The field of citizen science offers important lessons learnt of relevance to disaster management. Citizen science refers to the practice of engaging members of the public in scientific research. Thanks to citizens observing, collecting, sharing and analysing data, a vast range of high-quality scientific research has been completed, much of which would not have been possible otherwise. If disaster management valued community knowledge like citizen science does, protocols and systems could be established to promote and encourage the most useful citizen practices and allow for improved harnessing of citizen action and community-supplied information.

  1. Can we better-incorporate and appreciate gender and sexual diversity in disaster management (policies, organisations, and research)?
    Here, there are three areas I believe need further attention: 1) considerations of gender and sexual minorities in responding to and managing disasters, 2) diversity of personnel in emergency organisations, and 3) diversity in research and teaching. Sexual and gender minorities are commonly recognised as a vulnerable group in disaster policies. Yet, research into LGBTIQ experiences in disasters highlights significant policy and practice failings (such as the lack of planning and provision for the safety of transgender people when using bathrooms in evacuation or refuge centres). These failings are often due to hetero-normative assumptions around things like what a ‘family’ looks like (e.g. a family with two mums may not be recognised in the same way as a family with male and female parents in policies in some jurisdictions). Heterogeneity within groups such as ‘gender and sexual minorities’, and that disaster risk is also experienced unequally within vulnerable populations, also needs further recognition in disaster policy (and in research!). Lesbians, bisexual women and queers of colour, for instance, were more vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina than white middle-class gay men due to lower incomes and the neighbourhoods where they lived being subject to increased flooding. Lastly here, and quite simply, failure to recognise people as anything other than male or female in disaster policy terminology highlights the shortfall between operational disaster management and the actual needs and makeup of contemporary societies.

blue diamond.jpg The LGBT+ rights group Blue Diamond Society in Nepal established a camp for LGBT+ people following earthquakes in 2015, as neither the UN nor the government delivered non-binary aid, despite Nepal legally recognising transgender people (image credit: Blue Diamond Society).

Emergency organisations have made concerted efforts in recent years to increase diversity in their ranks, particularly related to gender. But these efforts have largely been flawed (or at least limited) from the beginning in that they frequently consider gender diversity as an issue concerned only with increasing the proportions of women in organisations. While this is certainly needed, there is no question (in many societies at least, and especially in the West), that there are people who do not align with or identify as either of these binary terms. So, why is the discussion around gender diversity so often limited to male or female? I have witnessed a number of disaster management conference sessions and panels on “Diversity” that have not only focused almost solely on gender in the absence of other diversity challenges, such as increasing representation of sexual minorities, racial and ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, religious affiliations, or people living with disabilities, but have based diversity discussions on quotas for number of women in organisations. Such a narrow framing of diversity has a range of negative implications.

For issues of trust, risk communication, and the heeding of warnings, it is important that the people serving a community ‘look like’ the community, and thus in increasingly diverse societies, there needs to be greater representation of diversity in all forms in emergency organisations. In Australia at least, it is no secret that disaster management in practice is dominated by older straight white males, which may be difficult for many in communities to relate to. A lack of diversity also impacts the amount of and types of people who volunteer in disaster organisations. Volunteers are vital to many organisations, but again, if organisations don’t represent them, community members may not be inclined to join. Significantly, if the people designing and implementing disaster policies do not represent or at least appreciate the diversity of populations they are working for, disaster management in policy and practice will remain limited in its ability to adequately deliver its aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities (as per my first point in this section).

In academia, I believe we can do better here too. Emergency organisations are not unique in their often narrow binary framings of gender. In terms of further work, we need more research into experiences of gender and sexual minorities in disaster management in general, and into more nuanced and specific questions in a variety of contexts, such as exploration of differences between groups under the LGBTIQ umbrella, and further, between individuals within each of those sub-categories. In teaching on disaster management we could look to include perspectives from a more diverse range of scholars from various backgrounds. While I haven’t surveyed the suggested readings for my courses, my feeling is the author list is likely dominated by cisgender males, probably Caucasian and heterosexual too.

  1. Can we encourage more comprehensive and better-informed media reporting of disasters beyond crisis response?
    Mainstream media reporting on disaster management largely focuses on immediate response to emergencies. I appreciate this may make for a more exciting news story, but this presents a limited view of disaster management, which is complex and involves so much more than emergency response. Promotion of activities like disaster preparedness in news stories may be helpful for achieving some of the policy objectives mentioned above, such as disaster risk reduction and community resilience. Further, disaster impacts do not stop when the journalists move on, and the effects of disasters extend into the future, often for years. Yet, disaster recovery stories are rarely told (there are exceptions of course, e.g. Al Jazeera produced a number of follow-up stories in the years after the Haiti earthquake in 2010).

    Media tend to over-report the experiences of ‘home citizens’ in disaster areas, for example the stories of British citizens impacted by Hurricane Irma in the United States, or Australian and British tourists in areas impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. My colleague, Gemma Sou, has written on these and related topics, and calls for greater recognition of the impacts to local people in disaster regions. Further to this, I argue that increased emphasis on home citizens in the media discourages people at ‘home’ from relating risk to themselves (by ‘home’, I mean the country the media outlet is largely reporting to, e.g. BBC to Britain). Reporting on tourists in disasters contributes to a mentality that disasters happen ‘over there’ and people who go ‘over there’ are at risk, but they are safe at home, which is not an accurate narrative.

    Finally, western media could present a more global picture of disasters (particularly those claiming to deliver ‘world news’). During Hurricane Irma in the US, for instance, there were several ongoing disasters with impacts on populations comparable to Irma that received substantially less coverage (e.g. cholera outbreak in Yemen, floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, a mudslide in Sierra Leone). Alluding to my points in section 3, media could also present stories on and from more diverse perspectives in delivering more global pictures of disasters (Research has shown LGBTIQ narratives are rarely told in mainstream disaster reporting, for instance, and news media influences both public understandings and disaster policies). Of course, I recognise the commercial impetus that influences what and how journalists and media outlets report on disasters, and the reality of providing content that will satisfy readers (paying customers). I would question, however, the role of national, largely government (or tax payer) funded news broadcasters. Are national broadcasters like the BBC or ABC (Australia) presenting the kind of balanced coverage of disasters we (I, at least) might hope for from a non-commercial service?

These are just some of the current research, policy, and practice challenges I perceive for disaster management, and of course there are many more. While we continue to conduct our work and engage in this field, whether it be through policy and practice, academic research, or studies at HCRI and elsewhere, I encourage us to be aware: aware of our relative positions and perspectives, and to increasingly consider the perspectives of others. I started this post by saying that disaster management is complex, and I will finish in recognition of that by calling for greater integration between individuals and sectors involved in disaster management, including academia, government and disaster organisations, the private sector, and, significantly, citizens from all walks of life, because complex problems are rarely solved with simple solutions.

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.

Reflections: Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) annual conference, 2016

With support of the IAG, I recently attended the IAG annual conference in Adelaide. The theme of the conference, “Frontiers of Geographical Knowledge” was manifest in the jam-packed program, with a number of sessions focusing on the future of the discipline, globally-significant research areas such as natural hazards and disaster risk reduction, and topics reflecting broader social trends, such as greater recognition of the importance and value of indigenous culture, knowledge and research methods.

I found Lauren Rickards’ (RMIT) paper in the slow emergencies session particularly rewarding. Lauren presented on “colliding temporalities, biopolitics and ontologies in the Tasmanian wilderness fires” of 2016. In an engaging presentation she questioned interpretations of the term ‘resilience’ and made insightful comments on media, political and cultural understandings of bushfire in Australia. I also point to the paper by Leah Talbot (CSIRO) as a standout for me. Leah spoke on “Indigenous rights, country and people empowered through the use of Indigenous research methodologies,” where she made a case for the need to “move Aboriginal people from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat” in indigenous-related research.

Lauren was also a panelist in a discussion session on experiences of disaster resilience. This was the first all-female panel I’ve seen at a conference (I’ve certainly seen all-male) – awesome show of equality, IAG! I was also pleased to see numerous speakers, including keynotes, of non-white background as well as a strong Aboriginal presence at the conference, and South Australia’s first openly gay Member of Parliament, The Hon. Ian Hunter, gave the welcome address. As geographers we should be acutely aware of the dominant power-relations at play in our societies, and challenging these to give underrepresented and marginalized groups and individuals equal voices and opportunities seems to me an important contribution that the discipline can make, and this was evident at IAG.

IAG_2016
Me presenting at the IAG conference 2016. Photo credit: Joshua Whittaker. View on Instagram.

I presented a paper from my PhD research in the session chaired by Eloise Biggs (UWA) on Geospatial information for monitoring socio-environmental risk, alongside Andrew MacLachlan (Southampton) who presented on remote sensing urban expansion in Perth, and Alan Smith (Southampton), who’s paper addressed the development of a temporally dynamic population model for Perth. The paper I presented was co-authored with Joshua Whittaker and Eleanor Bruce and looks at volunteered geographic information (VGI) and disaster risk reduction through the application of participatory mapping in community bushfire preparation in Tasmania. The talk went well and the discussion at the end of the session was one of the best I’ve been a part of, with many in the room, not just the speakers, providing interesting input on a range of related issues raised by the presentations.

Another important aspect of IAG for me was time spent with people discussing research, networking, and making friends, especially as a postgrad and early career researcher. The lunch breaks were good for this, but the conference dinner was great. The IAG travel funds I was awarded helped facilitate the trip through my airfares to attend, but also they went towards accommodation, which I shared with two other early career researchers. I had a great time with these guys and have formed lasting career contacts and friendships, and I’m grateful for the support of the IAG.