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Community and Risk Communication: Experience of COVID-19 Communication in India

May 21, 2021
By 19832

Sreerupa Sengupta discusses the positive and negative aspects of the risk communication strategies taken by India during COVID-19. On an international level, lessons learned from past pandemics have led to improvements in risk communication, and the Internet and social media have been used significantly to reach the public. But among other problems, use of the term “social distancing” reinforced the caste-based inequality prevalent in Indian society, Sengupta notes.

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Pandemic, Risks, and Realities

History has shown that pandemics are not a novel phenomenon. Over the decades, the world has witnessed an increase in the frequency of pandemics: HIV and AIDS in 1981, SARS in 2002, swine flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2013.[1] It may sound ironic, but globalization, urbanization, environmental change, and greater mobility of people and animals have increased the potential for “global transmission of epidemics” (Hastings and  Krewski 2016). While the higher frequency of pandemics has contributed to an increase in human mortality and social apprehension; pandemics have also led to transformational changes in the environment, society, and health systems research (Hall, Scott, et al. 2020). The outbreak of pandemics, such as HIV, SARS, and Ebola, has acted as a catalyst in bringing about advancements in health infrastructure, testing, screening, medical devices, medicine, and healthcare delivery. These pandemics have provided the necessary momentum and insights for reshaping risk communication during public health emergencies (WHO 2018). In short, pandemics have been our teachers. There were many lessons for the affected countries as well as for the rest of the world to leverage and strategize how to build a resilient society that can respond to public health emergencies effectively (Chatterjee, Bajwa, et al. 2020).

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19[2] as a pandemic. The announcement of the pandemic created chaos, uncertainty, ambiguity, and anxiety across the globe. Despite experience with past pandemics and preparedness to deal with pandemics accumulated over the decades, many countries struggled to prevent and manage COVID-19 (Wang, Cleary, et al. 2020). The world was found to be in learning and reactive mode, with a greater focus on lockdown and isolation. This kind of reaction from countries was indeed surprising, especially given that it was the twenty-first century. Even risk communication during the COVID-19 pandemic created confusion and chaos in many countries.

Pandemic as Teacher: Designing Risk Communication during COVID-19

In the absence of a vaccine at the initial stage of the pandemic, countries relied heavily on nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)[3] such as risk awareness to prevent and slow the transmission of the virus in the community. Risk communication emerged as one of the potent tools to make people aware of the risks, motivate them to change their behavior, and thereby control the rapid spread of the virus into the community.[4]

COVID-19 risk communication was significantly influenced by the experiences of risk communication during HIV and AIDS. HIV and COVID-19 have a few similarities. Both started with no vaccine or cure. Both pandemics created social and moral panic.  Unlike COVID-19, the onslaught of HIV was slow and took nearly four decades to cause disruptions, but like COVID-19, HIV had an unprecedented impact on public health, human development, and individual lives.

HIV heralded major shifts in the discourse of health communication. HIV highlighted that individual behavior and decision-making capacity are determined by their social context and that this in turn influences their health seeking behavior (Sengupta 2013). Hence, HIV re-emphasized that the psychosocial determinants are crucial in designing realistic health messages.

Another major contribution of HIV communication was its insistence on a bottom-up approach while designing health messages to bring about social change. The significance of diverse stakeholder engagement in health communication was the point HIV drove home for policymakers, health officials, and development professionals.

Community workers, the networks of people living with HIV and AIDS activists also emphasized the necessity of risk communication to address human rights abuses that are both cause and consequence of the spread of the virus.

Taking cues from AIDS communication, the public service announcements developed by the WHO addressed the physical and emotional needs of people. The risk communication went beyond the biomedical model of health[5] and addressed an array of topics, such as empathy for people living with the virus, home care during COVID-19, stress reduction, taking care of mental health during a crisis, and provision of home care (WHO 2020). There were messages to destigmatize the disease and reduce discrimination faced by people living with the virus. The WHO also developed communication materials on how exactly to talk about the pandemic to reduce stigma and on addressing human rights as key to the response to COVID-19 (WHO 2020). The WHO acknowledged that integrating a human rights framework is “not only a moral imperative” but essential for making health communication inclusive. There were messages on the right to health of pregnant women and differently abled people and the right to life and security of healthcare workers (WHO, 2020).[6]

Social media was used extensively to send out messages on risks to a vast segment of the population. The WHO created a dedicated website on COVID-19, set up a WhatsApp group, and launched a new Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN) as an immediate form of health intervention. Various countries launched national campaigns on pandemic-related issues on the government websites and social platforms to combat fake news and to encourage awareness, understanding, and compliance with government-imposed restrictions (Chatterjee, Bajwa, et al. 2020).

The risk communication developed during COVID-19 deftly incorporated the lessons learned from HIV and other health crises and brought about positive changes in the global communication on risk. The pace at which materials on risk communication developed during this pandemic in all countries and the range of topics covered is undeniably commendable.

But it should be borne in mind that while the pandemic is global, the response to it is local. As an academic and a development professional working in the domain of health communication for over a decade,[7] I became interested in exploring the changes in risk communication in India during the current public health emergency. I analyzed the risk communication materials published on social media and newspapers between March and October 2020, when cases of the novel coronavirus were sharply increasing in India. 

COVID-19 Communication: Experiences from India

A toll-free helpline for psychosocial support.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW)[8] of India developed a plethora of information, education, and communication (IEC) materials on risk awareness related to COVID-19 and strategies to stay safe and prevent the spread of the virus. Along with print and electronic media, social media was used extensively to connect with the people; a dedicated section on COVID-19 was also developed on the website of the MoHFW. The Health Ministry networked with diverse stakeholders including departments of telecommunication, postal services, and 

Educating people about rules of etiquette to follow during the pandemic.

the National Council for Science and Technology Communication to sensitize people about COVID-19. Given the paucity of time and the vast population, the government of India also joined hands with private players to reach out to remote corners of the country. For instance, the MoHFW collaborated with mobile companies to expedite the process of risk communication. Private mobile companies created ringtones to raise awareness about the virus and instructed people to report to the nearest healthcare center in case of symptoms of COVID-19. The ringtones included messages in the local languages and were aimed at debunking myths, reducing fear among the people regarding the virus, and educating them about “new normal” etiquette.

A message on home quarantine.

Given the rapid spread of the virus, multiple channels of communication, such as social and print media and mass media campaigns, were used to reach out to the people. Using multiple channels increased the chances that the intended audience will receive enough messages on risk awarene ss to absorb and act on them. It is also heartening to observe that risk awareness was not confined within the biomedical framework. Rather, the IEC materials developed by the government discussed a range of issues, such as the mental health of people living with COVID-19, empathy, home quarantine, care and support, stigma, and discrimination. The messages included, “Do not stigmatize patients and family members,” “Do not stigmatize COVID-19 survivors,” and “Standing together against COVID-19 stigma.” A psychosocial toll-free helpline and a helpline email account were created for better community engagement.

A message about destigmatizing people living with Corona.

For the first time, there was a series of communication materials that addressed the contribution of frontline workers, their need for protection, and the responsibility of society to be respectful toward them. Undoubtedly, there were major shifts in the content, channel, and strategy for risk communication during COVID-19. But notwithstanding the positive endeavor of the MoHFW, there were glaring gaps, as I outline below.

 a. Uncritical acceptance of the global framework of risk communication

The MoHFW followed the diktats of the WHO in developing local risk communication materials. Hence, in most such materials developed by the national government, the term “social distancing” has been frequently used as a key risk mitigation strategy. While the WHO did initially use the term “social distancing,” it quickly switched to “physical distancing.” Unfortunately, the MoHFW upheld the globally coined language of “social distancing.” History has shown that the concept is inherently divisive. The Indian caste system thrives on the idea of social distancing. The upper caste in India maintains its purity by socially distancing themselves from the impure lower caste. Frequent usage of the concept of social distancing in risk communication reinforced and deepened the inequality prevalent in Indian society.

The concept of social distancing also assumes that people have the requisite resources and an enabling environment to adopt such preventive strategies. The critical question is: can a daily wage earner, migrant laborer, homeless person, or resident of an urban slum who lives in abject poverty realistically practice social distancing?

 b. Absence of community concerns in COVID-19 communication

None of the IEC materials addressed the vulnerability of such groups as migrant laborers, homeless people, and sex workers, as if their reality does not matter. A content analysis of the posters uploaded on various social media and published in newspapers highlights the lack of representation of marginalized groups in the country. The review makes it apparent that a top-down approach had been taken in designing the risk communication materials, with little involvement of the community.

Governed by the diktats of the donors, the national government was keener to produce quantifiable results. The focus was more on measuring return on investment than on truly inducing social change. Success of risk communication was thus measured by counting the numbers of IEC materials produced, new media used, and NGOs supported in the creation of communication materials. If we observe the pattern of risk communication in India, it becomes apparent that the exercise had been an attempt to respond to the bureaucratic targets of preparing infographics, toolkits, manuals and reports rather than to uplift the lives of people and make health communication contextual, inclusive, and sustainable.

 c. Failure to contextualize risk communication

HIV clearly showed that risk communication is effective only when the real concerns of the community are addressed and social norms and cultures are honored. For instance, in India, every year people suffer from measles despite vaccines. It is a common practice to quarantine the individual within the family for three weeks. Such practices neither arouse stigma nor create any panic in the community. COVID-19 communication should have made references to such health instances to allay the fear of the people, reduce their anxiety and confusion, and strike the right chord with the larger population.

Conclusion

The public health emergency in the country did usher in a number of positive changes in the landscape of risk communication. COVID-19 created the space for greater use of technology in risk communication. For a country like India, with its geographical vastness, this was indeed a boon. But the pandemic once again made it clear that to make health communication sustainable and for better risk governance, there is a need to include local words and visuals from the community in health-related materials. Health messages should use local art forms to connect with the community. Local institutions should be engaged in documenting and disseminating local and traditional practices of good health already in place, which can then be shared and practiced by diverse communities to avert pandemics. International guidelines provide a direction to risk communication, but risk communication should essentially be context specific and people centered. Unless that happens, risk communication will remain a tool for public health management and not an initiative for the people to claim their right to health.

Adapted by the author from an article originally posted on changeframing.space: https://www.changeframing.space/answering-the-burning-questions/confusion-angst-and-deceptive-communication.

[1] The world witnessed the outbreak of HIV and AIDS in 1981 in the United States. Over the decades, HIV spread to several countries. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, 2002–2003) originated in China and spread to nearly 29 countries, swine flu (2009–2010) appeared in Mexico and spread to at least 30 countries, and Ebola (2013–2014) appeared in Africa and spread to at least 10 countries. It was the geographical spread of these viruses that earned them the title of pandemic. The number of people affected by the latter three viruses did not reach the proportion of either HIV or the current COVID-19. See https://www.changeframing.space/answering-the-burning-questions/confusion-angst-and-deceptive-communication.

[2] COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. COVID-19 is now a pandemic affecting many countries globally. See https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.

[3] According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nonpharmaceutical interventions are actions that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of illnesses like pandemic influenza in the absence of a vaccine or medicine. NPIs are also known as community mitigation strategies. See https://www.cdc.gov/nonpharmaceutical-interventions/index.html.

[4] Risk communication forms an essential component in the package of effective pandemic response. In 2005, the International Health Regulations underscored its importance as a health intervention. Since then, risk communication has become central to the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework (WHO 2018).

[5] The biomedical approach focuses on disease transmission and prevention from a clinical perspective. Risk communication following a biomedical model of health will discuss only transmission of the virus and methods of prevention; the focus is only on biological factors. Other factors, such as psychological, environmental, and social, are not taken into consideration.

[6] See https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public.

[7] My affair with health communication happened in 2006 through a project on HIV and violence against women (VAW). Thereafter, the Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) fellowship in 2008 gave me an opportunity to delve into the politics and ideology that influence health messages and engage with the community to make health communication more inclusive. My doctoral dissertation adopted a gender- and rights-based approach to analyze representation of gender inequality, HIV, and human rights and the intersections between them in HIV-related communication in India.

[8] The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (https://main.mohfw.gov.in/about-us/about-the-ministry) is responsible for health policy and the planning and implementation of health-related programs in India. The ministry also looks into matters pertaining to family planning in India.

References

Chatterjee, R, S. Bajwa, D. Dwivedi, et al. 2020. “COVID-19 Risk Assessment Tool: Dual Application of Risk Communication and Risk Governance.” Progress in Disaster Science 7 (October 2020), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pdisas.2020.100109.

Hall, C., D. Scott, and S. Gössling. 2020. “Pandemics, Transformations and Tourism: Be Careful What You Wish For.” Tourism Geographies 22, no. 3 (2020),577-598 https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2020.1759131.

International Labour Organization. 2020. An Employer’s Guide on Working from Home in Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_dialogue/---act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_745024.pdf.

Saunders-Hastings, Patrick R., and Daniel Krewski. 2016. “Reviewing the History of Pandemic Influenza: Understanding Patterns of Emergence and Transmission.” Pathogens 5, no. 4 (2016), 66 https://doi.org/10.3390/pathogens5040066

Sengupta, S. 2013. HIV and AIDS Media Campaigns in India: Exploring Issues of Gender and Rights, Doctoral Dissertation, Jadavpur University, 2013. http://hdl.handle.net/10603/133048

Wang, H., P. Cleary, J. Little, et al. 2020. “Communicating in a Public Health Crisis”. The Lancet Digital Health 2, no. 10 (2020): e503. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2589-7500(20)30197-7.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2020. Gender and COVID-19: Advocacy Brief. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/332080/WHO-2019-nCoV-Advocacy_brief-Gender-2020.1-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

WHO. 2020. Addressing Human Rights as Key to the COVID-19 Response. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/addressing-human-rights-as-key-to-the-covid-19-response.

WHO. 2018. Communicating Risk in Public Health Emergencies: A WHO Guideline for Emergency Risk Communication (ERC) Policy and Practice. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/259807/9789241550208-eng.pdf?sequence=2.

WHO. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public. Last updated April 9, 2021. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public.

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[BigDataSur] “WhatsApper-ing” alone will not save Brazilian political disarray: An investigation of the affordances of WhatsApp under Bolsonarism

October 16, 2020
By 27510

This article reflects on the role of “WhatsAppers”, defined as social activists appropriating WhatsApp as a primary platform to organize and communicate, in relation with the rise of Bolsonarism in Brazil. Affordances of WhatsApp usage by social actors are explored in the light of responses to Bolsonarism, along with their implications in the current time of crisis.

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Photo credits: Lo Cole / The Economist

The research illustrated explores the affordances of WhatsApp and its appropriation by the WhatsAppers in Brazil, here defined as social activists appropriating WhatsApp as a primary platform to organize and communicate. I explore the importance of the Global South context in shaping such affordances, focusing on local epistemologies which bypass the structure of mainstream Brazilian media. As illustrated elsewhere, the empirical analysis combined different qualitative methods, yielding insights into the communication and action repertoire of the group studied, not without considering reflections on research ethics and their implications in the context studied.

WhatsAppers: Towards a new research agenda

This research stems from an analysis of the social interactions of UnidosContraOGolpe (UCG), a leftist group in Brazil, which was a WhatsApp “private group” emerged in 2016 to oppose the controversial impeachment of the then-president Dilma Rousseff. The case study resulted into the first empirical MA dissertation in Latin America to explore digital activism on WhatsApp private chats as an emerging field of political action. To do so, a ‘meso-micro’ analysis was used – on the meso level, to identify the modus operandi of group interactions and, on the micro level, to capture individual motivations, tensions, and expectations. At the core of the investigation, the researcher’s identity was disclosed, following social actors through their chat environment and adopting an ‘engaged’ approach, whereby the research is designed with the goal of empowering social actors. In practical terms, this inspired a triangulation of qualitative methods, including digital ethnography (to identify and analyze the practice of social actors inside the chat domain, through a long “zoom” perspective on social interactions in the private chat group), content analysis of selected posts (to understand how the group emerged organically and self-organized in a contingent manner) and fifteen in-depth semi-structured interviews (to elicit values and motivations from the perspective of individual active participants).

This dissertation argues that WhatsAppers are characterized by their ability to appropriate the chat group as a means to participate in political life. Engagement with political activism becomes an intimate and familiar affair, mediated by a personal and omnipresent device, that enables a unique approach to mobilization. In general lines, everyone could be a WhatsApper, including those not previously politically active. A WhatsApper could be someone who already is entwined in other social media networks of politics and mobilization or not; they can be someone from a poor, middle or rich class background. In other words, WhatsAppers interact digitally with others, combining online and offline political actions. Through the lens of digital sociology, the case studied reveals that WhatsApp stands out as a platform for civic engagement, promoting new spaces of digital activism for three main reasons: the chat app (1) affords structurally new forms of political participation and collective engagement, (2) forges communities of mutual interest, and (3) promotes collective decision-making and individual autonomous actions on a small scale. However, drawbacks are found in howbots can influence conversations on WhatsApp, fake users can hijack chats, and group members may be threatened by surveillance attacks.

Bolsonarism: into the Brazilian political crisis

In 2019, the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Brazil has seen a record deforestation and a drop to zero applications of environmental fines. Bolsonaro nominated a human rights minister who was well-known for preaching sexual abstinence as a state policy. Sons of the president are under investigation of crime and corruption. Also, Bolsonaro has nominated a secretary of culture extolling Nazi propaganda. Moreover, every week the Brazilian “anti-president” openly attacks the press, and recently was considered the worst leader to struggle against the Coronavirus pandemic.

The political scenario in which Bolsonarism surges is widely recognized as reflecting a crisis of political representation and the widespread disbelief in politics and traditional parties. Bolsonarism can be understood as “a political phenomenon that transcends the figure of Bolsonaro and is characterized by an ultra-conservative worldview, returning to traditional values and nationalist and patriotic rhetoric”. Facing this scenario, an urgent question should be addressed: what is really happening to Brazilian democracy?

Looking back, looking forward

Brazil is an extremely unequal country along multiple dimensions that include internet access. Part of the semi-illiterate population gathers their information almost solely through visual messages, audios and videos from thousands of WhatsApp groups, thanks to the “zero rating” fees provided by telecom companies that replaced more expensive short-text messages. The larger context of Latin America makes an excellent test bed for the study of WhatsApp social interactions because “96 percent of Brazilians with access to a smartphone use WhatsApp as primary method of interpersonal communication”. According to the Reuters Institute, 53 percent of Brazilians use “ZapZap” (as the app is commonly known in the country) to find and consume news. Everyday citizens also use “ZapZap” to order pizza, stay in touch with family, transfer money, make doctor appointments, learn, spread gossip and date.

While the leftist “UCG” WhatsAppers were calling for political action, far right activists were articulating themselves in WhatsApp private groups and beyond, also combining online and offline activities. Progressive sectors were as well unable to build a national digital campaign, with very rare exceptions, such as small local initiatives like UCG. Consequently, the potential of digital activism on chat apps was later weaponized by far-right groups that not only appropriated public and private groups on and with WhatsApp, but also acted as pipeline to other social media. Digital information became a “weapon” that is still used in “out of control” mode nowadays by Bolsonaro’s supporters, taking advantage of the high penetration of WhatsApp in Brazil, and facilitated by the limited digital literacy of the population. In fact, Bolsonaro ran a successful campaign in 2018 based on a combination of bottom-up authoritarianism and digital populism. His supporters were helped by bots to spread misleading content “weaponizing” various WhatsApp groups.

COVID-19: creative WhatsAppers from the margins

This case presents important implications for the ongoing crisis. Brazilian citizens are currently bombarded with COVID-19 related disinformation and facing a chaotic portrait, while far right activists occupied larges spaces on digital networks before and after the 2018 elections. Moreover, there are lessons learned from the inability to stop Bolsonarism’s digital army, namely: send messages which everyday citizens can trust. Today, Brazilians behave more and more like consumers instead of citizens, trusting the market more than science – perhaps this is precisely the gap that paves our country for thousands of deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.

Brazilian mainstream media are currently discussing who might be a potential presidential candidate for the next elections in 2022. However, a deeper question is whether democratic values will still be upheld at that time. The composition of Bolsonaro’s government reminds us that Brazilian’s young democracy is now more capitalist, colonialist, patriarchaland is heading towards a dangerous and irresponsible political adventure, and the outcomes are unpredictable. During the pandemic, social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizers, masks, respirator machines and lockdowns are privileges of the Global North, while in the South, many will not even have access to minimum services.

As the title suggests, using WhatsApp for chatting and hanging out alone will not solve the political Brazilian disarray, but perhaps creative WhatsAppers could provide a spark to create national-transnational solidarity. Namely: high speed participatory decision-making to deliver groceries, collect money, produce masks, share scientific information, mobilize against COVID-19 related disinformation, reach poor families and fight for emergent democratic imaginaries. The UCG case study still works as a well-informed internal communication strategy for connecting and activating social solidarity networks that grounds for hope, especially because it reveals the battlefield of political struggle that enables scientific shared information, civic engagement, collective mobilization, and solidarity. Lastly, the coordination of online activities combined with actions on the ground by WhatsAppers triggers digital activism in times of pandemic.

About the author

Sérgio Barbosa

Sérgio Barbosa is a PhD candidate in the program “Democracy in the Twenty-First Century” in the Centre for Social Studies (CES), at the University of Coimbra and a Sylff fellow sponsored by Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research. He is a member of the Technopolitics – a “Latin” research network connecting Brazil and Ecuador with Spain, Portugal and Italy. His research explores the emerging forms of political participation vis-à-vis the possibilities afforded by chat apps, with emphasis on WhatsApp for digital activism and social mobilization

Acknowledgments

The author thanks Silvia Masiero for her careful review (and beyond) and wishes to thank Charlotth Back and Jeroen de Vos for their comments and suggestions. He extends his gratitude also to Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré for launching Big Data from the South initiative. This blogpost has received funding from the Sylff (Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund) Research Abroad – SRA fellowship sponsored by the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

 

Reprinted, with a lead by the author, from DATACTIVE Big Data Sur blog, https://data-activism.net/2020/06/bigdatasur-whatsapper-ing-alone-will-not-save-brazilian-political-disarray-an-investigation-of-the-affordances-of-whatsapp-under-bolsonarism/.

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Providing Space for Good Conversations on YouTube amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 18, 2020
By 25157

James Martyn completed his Doctorate at Massey University in New Zealand in 2014–16 as a Sylff fellow. He currently works as a psychologist at the Department of Corrections in Tauranga, the fifth most populous city of New Zealand, and privately as a mental health consultant. Amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, James has been utilizing his expertise in creating space for good conversations through a short video series on YouTube, covering such useful topics as stress and better habits under the difficult circumstances.

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Introduction: Good Intentions

I have always wanted to be the sort of person who can be helpful in a time of need; to know not only that I can help if needed but that the type of help I can provide is useful. It is one of the things that led me to become a psychologist. But if I am honest with myself, there are many days when I feel like I fall short. As I sit and reflect on life, I often feel an internal pull toward doing more for others: to give more, be more, and have more of an impact. Too often, I think of the “big” things I wish I could do or might do in the future to be useful. However, during these times, it is easy to discount the small and perhaps equally important things we can do today to be helpful. It is my intention to focus not only on the big things in the future but also on the small things and the small ways in which I can be more outwardly focused today.


Coronavirus: Different Boats, Same Storm

Amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, we have all witnessed and experienced a rapidly changing world. These changes have contributed to a wide range of very real challenges that we have either experienced or observed in ourselves and in others. Whether the challenges were experienced emotionally, physically, socially, psychologically, or spiritually, there are very few people who have not been affected in some way by the recent circumstances. 

While I think it is a misconception that we are all in the same boat together during this pandemic, I certainly feel we are all experiencing the same storm. At times the figurative rain and wind have felt unrelenting. During this time some of our boats, for a variety of reasons, continue to fare better or worse than others. But like all storms, this too will pass—although this particular storm will be long remembered. The storm’s gift and curse is that it has brought to our attention a number of areas, personally, nationally, and even globally, that may require some repair to ensure our safety and the safety of others in the future. 

In our small country of New Zealand, with just over five million in population, it is easy to see that we have been incredibly lucky as a whole, despite the suffering of many. As of this writing, our country has been fortunate enough to be able to lift almost all of its coronavirus restrictions, despite some fluctuates across the country. However, New Zealand, as with many other countries, continues to face struggles. The increased stressors, pressures, and uncertainty that have arisen alongside the implications of the coronavirus have had and continue to have an impact on many people’s mental health and well-being. 


How Can I Be Helpful?

Just a few months ago, our country, like many others, entered full lockdown. We began to face the challenges of social and community disruption, financial pressures, and interruptions to many aspects of our daily lives on a scale that we had not seen before. While many people did not experience significant difficulties, for others the impact and uncertainty brought considerable stress. 

As a psychologist, I continue to work with adaptations to my day-to-day activities. In one of my roles, I work as a consultant with a friend and colleague at Lumind.co.nz. Lumind is a small start-up consulting and training company that we created with the intention to provide accessible, useable, and relevant evidence-based psychological information to businesses and community groups. Our aim is to help groups to “mind what matters.” Talking via Zoom, at one point we discussed the likely implications of the coronavirus on mental health. We wanted to help in some way, to find a place to step outside of our comfort zone. Together, we have often discussed the “big” ideas and dreams about what we can pursue. In doing so we have dreamt, strategized, and reflected, often at the expense of acting in the short term. This is not to say that taking time to think big is unhelpful, but I feel our focus on the future can at times lead to missing the smaller opportunities that lie in front of us. Consequently, as we spoke about wanting to be useful in this moment of the coronavirus pandemic, we decided to put aside our preconceptions of having a polished product and simply try to give some of our knowledge and resources to others. We tried to be useful in our own small way.


Our Mental Health and Technology Focus

Our particular area of interest at our business, Lumind, is the intersection between mental health and technology. It is our view that at present, psychological resources are not delivered effectively. Access to evidence-based psychology assessment and intervention in the community is typically bottlenecked by limited service resources. This is due in part to numerous barriers that surround current mental health treatment and delivery, which have contributed to discrepancies between treatment needs, availability, and uptake. Consequently, too many people who could benefit from psychological resources and greater well-being ultimately miss out on or are not afforded equal opportunity for access. It is our view that technology is one critical component that can help disseminate evidenced-based psychological resources and potentially improve access to appropriate resources in the future. We feel that this may subsequently work to improve mental health and well-being for many who may have otherwise missed out. 

Mental health and well-being has become an increasingly popular topic in recent years. New Zealand was the first country in the world to develop a “Wellbeing Budget.” Additionally, the number of well-being-focused websites, applications, podcasts, books, and other resources has grown exponentially. On the whole, this is a great thing. However, not all content is created equal. It is our view that there is a lot of information available through technology that has good intentions, but not all are evidence based. In some cases, the content and delivery method may even lead to a negative outcome. As such, we feel that psychologists should have a voice in the well-being and technology area. Lumind wants to be part of the conversation.


Creating the “Minding What Matters” Video Series


With this in mind, outside of our normal work, we decided to do something small using technology—something that utilized our expertise. As with any time you put yourself out to the public, it was very easy to think of the reasons not to go ahead. For instance, there was plenty of other content available online; our video and audio quality was relatively low; given that our content was casual and unscripted, we may say something incorrect or that may be judged differently than our intention. However, when we came back to our intention—to show support to our community in a time of need—we felt that the benefit was worth the effort. 

As psychologists, we are not trying to pretend we “have it all together.” We understand that we have our own paths climbing our own personal mountains with their own unique set of challenges. However, from our vantage point on our mountain, we may be able to see your position from a different angle. Our perspective, as well as the skills we have developed along the way, may be valuable to share. As such, my colleague and I decided to put together a short video series titled “Minding What Matters.” Each video was a casual, lighthearted, and short conversation with other psychologists. Together, we chatted around a particular topic area that we thought may be helpful during COVID-19 and beyond. 

The result was a series of nine videos available on YouTube with such topics as “virtually supporting someone who is struggling,” “dealing with anxiety and worry during difficult times,” “parenting tips during stressful times,” and “why bad habits strike during stress.” In total, we have had around 900 views so far. Our intention has never been to obtain media views, but to be useful. It has been great to see that a few people have found it beneficial along the way. We have had positive feedback from people in care-type roles and helping professions, strangers, parents, and our friends. That is all we could have asked for. 


Conclusion: Remembering That Small Steps Matter

We are well aware there is better content with better quality available. But I think there continues to be space for both small and big projects; space for good conversations around relevant topics and based on evidence-based principles. In the future, it would be great to work more in this space, perhaps even take more risk and step further out of the comfort zone. But it has been a valuable experiment, one that has taught me to not take things too seriously and that taking small steps to help others today may at times be more effective than waiting for the “right time” to make many big steps to help others in the future. I think there are a lot of opportunities out there, ready for psychologists and other professions to share their skill set. I am learning to be bolder and to open my eyes to what these opportunities may be, both now and in the future. I hope you are too.


Lumind Channel on YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFr_ZQRaUGIVatjTrdVlbYg

Lumind is a start-up psychology consulting and training company consisting of co-directors Dr. James Martyn and Matt Hegan. Lumind aims to provide accessible, useable, and relevant evidence-based psychological information to businesses and community groups. Lumind’s purpose is to help people focus their “mind on what matters.”

Episode 1: Why This Series
https://youtu.be/vppYkanPXXI

Episode 2: Being Who You Want to Be
https://youtu.be/vppYkanPXXI

Episode 3: Anxiety and Worry during Difficult Times and Lockdown

Episode 4: Mindfulness—Calm in the Chaos of Lockdown
https://youtu.be/ztv625cG1T4

Episode 5: Psychologist Parenting Tips during COVID Lockdown

Episode 6: Mental and Physical Performance during Lockdown
https://youtu.be/TRnck0X_qVE

Episode 7: Virtually Supporting Someone Who May be Struggling

Episode 8 (BONUS): Psychologist Learns from 6-year-olds—How to Be a Good Friend in Lockdown

Episode 9. Why Bad Habits Strike during Times of Stress
https://youtu.be/RKMrPMR6t4Y

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Strengthening Journalists’ Election Reporting Skills as Ethiopia Transitions to a Democracy

May 18, 2020
By 24666

In November and December 2019, Mulatu Alemayehu Moges, PhD, now an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Addis Ababa University, organized a training workshop for Ethiopian journalists ahead of the country’s first general election under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, originally scheduled for May 2020. Moges sees the political transition to a democracy under the new prime minister as an opportunity for better-trained journalists to make a significant contribution to free and fair elections.

*     *     *

I was interested in training and capacitating Ethiopian journalists on various themes. While I was working as a journalist in the local media, it was very clear that the Ethiopian media faced many problems. For instance, while most journalists had attended formal journalism school, they were not ready to apply the principles they learned in practice. Most were also not able to make full use of the technological advances being made in journalism, and there was a need to make reporting more professional.

The author facilitates the training.

In 2018, I served as a resource person for the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia and facilitated two training programs for journalists and communication officers on the election, media, and democracy. Through this experience, I realized that journalists and communication officers lacked a thorough understanding of the election process, particularly, the ethical principles, legal issues, and other technicalities that were very important in election reporting.

From my discussions with experts on the electoral board, I also realized that one of the reasons for the low turnout and the disqualifying of some votes was a lack of clear understanding about the election process and voter engagement.

Last year, I was invited to train journalists and communication experts on the media, democracy, and elections, giving me an opportunity to observe the skills and knowledge of the trainees, particularly on election reporting. The experience prompted me to write a proposal to the Sylff Association.

For Free and Fair Elections in Ethiopia

Training on election reporting is important for several reasons. First, Ethiopia has been undergoing a political transition since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister. This transition has opened new opportunities for Ethiopian politics, making the upcoming general election highly anticipated and very competitive. Most opposition parties have been allowed to return to the country, and they are now freely restructuring and reorganizing themselves for the election. The government has opened up the political discourse, giving not only political groups but also individuals a chance to express their ideas freely through the media and other outlets.

The current government of Ethiopia has promised to end the kind of malpractices seen during earlier elections and to have a free and fair election. This makes it all the more important for the media to make a positive contribution to the election process, since freedom of expression and a free media are imperatives for a free and fair election. Media pluralism and the professionalization of journalists are crucial, and they should be addressed before the election campaign begins.

Among the key questions to be considered are how citizens are accessing neutral information about competing candidates, their political parties and policies, the election process, and voting guidelines; whether the political parties are freely carrying out political debates on the public media; whether the media is serving as a platform for such communication during the election period; and how well the journalists are trained in providing information about election processes to the general public in a timely and unrestricted manner. Accurately reporting on the political campaign and providing voters civic education are determining factors for ensuring both a fair election and high turnout. It is up to the media to connect the electoral commission and the candidates with the voters. This shows how the media can play an indispensable role in the election.

Training Ethiopian Journalists

All the above-mentioned points motivated me to apply for a Sylff Leadership Initiatives grant to facilitate training workshops for Ethiopian journalists who are expected to report on the upcoming election. The training program aimed to have an impact on 100 journalists on election reporting and on educating the public. In the workshops, experts were invited to make presentations on issues related to election reporting, the media, democracy, ethics of election reporting, election and media laws, access to information, and the right to information during the election. Participants were also encouraged to engage in group discussions.

Participating journalists engage in a group discussion.

The main objective of the workshops was not to train all Ethiopian journalists but, considering the budget and time, to approach editors and senior journalists in influential positions in their media organizations. Reaching out to these editors could be expected to have a trickle-down effect on junior journalists in two ways.

The first is that participating journalists may be able to arrange and facilitate similar workshops in their respective outlets. With this expectation, the organizers shared all the training materials with the participants, and some have already conveyed their insights to their colleagues. Two participants from the Amhara media agency, for example, have organized a training program at their organization. 

The second is that since they are in senior positions in their media organizations, these participants will have many opportunities to mentor and coach journalists who are working under them. From my own practical experience in the Ethiopian media, journalists learn a lot from their seniors. This is another way that the workshop can have an impact on even those journalists who did not attend the training. 

Such mutual teaching and learning were also observed during the training sessions. Some of the participants were very experienced, having worked in journalism for two decades and covered the last three general elections. There were senior editors and program producers who shared their practical experience in the Ethiopian media with other participants. In addition, having diverse training participants from community radio stations and both the public and private media across the country made the discussions lively and interactive. In some cases, journalists drew from their practical experience to substantiate the points they were making on the subject matter being discussed.

Sharing past coverage experience during a group discussion.

When the project was being designed, I expected at least 40% of the participants to be women. For unforeseen reasons, though, the number of female journalists enrolling, particularly in the first round, was very small. They were nevertheless very active during the training sessions, engaged in raising issues and questions and providing answers. They were also active in presenting ideas during the group discussion. 

A presentation by a female participant.

Expected Outcomes

The media, especially the mainstream media, plays a major role in raising awareness among the voting public. Radio, for example, still claims large audiences in Ethiopia, and a substantial share of people access information from radio programs. Some of the participating journalists worked at radio stations at the national, regional, and community levels, and they learned important lessons in educating voters and the public.

From this fact, the project can be said to have played a role in potentially increasing voter turnout around the country, and particularly the rural areas where people tend to be less educated. This can also lead to greater participation of youths and youth groups as journalists cover issues related to the electoral process, election guidelines, and ethical practices.

In the civic education section of the training, issues related to values, attitudes, and behaviors of electorates and candidates were thoroughly discussed, so these trained journalists will know how to behave during an election. Usually, youths are the ones who will take to the streets to demonstrate if they feel that an election was rigged or perceive irregularities in the electoral processes. By applying what they have learned in the workshop, journalists may be able to minimize the risks of electoral fraud and its consequence.

Last but not least, the project will play a direct role in the democratization process of the country. Free and fair elections are the foundations of a democratic system, so this project will have a multifaceted significance.

Organizing the training workshop was not an easy task, and it was not without its challenges. But we were able to hold it in a timely manner thanks to the cooperation of many parties. I would like to particularly thank the Sylff Association, UNESCO, and the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority for making my dream come true. The workshop would not have been successful without their support, encouragement, and follow-up. 

Related article on the Ethiopian Press Agency website:
https://www.press.et/english/?p=15482#

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Toward an International Academic Career

April 23, 2019
By 19642

Mihoko Sakurai, Sylff fellow at Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus in 2013, is currently a senior research fellow and associate professor at the Center for Global Communications (GLOCOM) of the International University of Japan. She is dedicated to helping build a more sustainable society through her research on resilient information systems. While receiving a Sylff fellowship at Keio University, she applied for and received an SRA award to study abroad at the University of Georgia in the United States. This experience strengthened her desire to pursue a research career from an international perspective. This is the story about her international academic career started from the SRA award. 

                                                                  *  *  *

My Journey from the United States to Norway

Several months after living in Athens, Georgia (United States), for around six months in total, during which my living expenses were partially covered by the Sylff Research Abroad (SRA) program, I finished writing my doctoral dissertation. I received a PhD in 2015 from the Graduate School of Media and Governance, Keio University.

Mihoko, left, and Rick.

My experience in the United States eventually took me on a wonderful journey. In summer 2014, I was at the University of Georgia (UGA) having a chat with my supervisor, Professor Richard T. Watson (Rick), on the way back to the office from his lecture. In the morning of the same day, he told me about a job opening at the University of Agder (UiA) in Norway. The university was offering a postdoctoral research fellow position in the area of information systems and disaster management. The description of the position fit well with my background, and Rick knew people well in that university.

The journey to the United States had already been something big to me, since it was my first time staying abroad for an extended period. I had not thought about working abroad after my stay at UGA. At the same time, however, my eyes had gradually opened during those months. I found that a university is a very international place, something that I did not feel much when I was at Keio. My curiosity was expanding. I started dreaming of having more international experiences at the beginning of my academic career. I decided to apply for the position.

City of Kristiansand, Norway.

One year later, in summer 2015, I flew to Kristiansand, a beautiful town in southern Norway. I was given a two-year position at UiA, where I ultimately worked for three years. It was indeed a wonderful and exceptional journey.

There are only a few so-called universities in Norway. On the other hand, there are many institutions called university colleges. The merger of university colleges was advanced as a national policy over the past decade plus, and UiA was founded by merging several regional university colleges in 2007. UiA has about 10,000 students and about 1,000 people working as academic and administrative staff. There are six faculties, and I belonged to the Department of Information Systems of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The department employed around 20 people, including PhD students; a PhD student is a paid job in Norway, which is an extremely good environment compared to the Japanese context.

 

The Research Environment in Norway

Universities in Norway are differentiated from university colleges in that they have PhD courses and focus on international-level research. The Research Council of Norway releases annual rankings of academic conferences and journals. Each publication is scored in these rankings, and each department reports the points earned by its academic staff to the university every year. These results indirectly affect budget allocations within the university. Individual research funding can be obtained according to the points. I was surprised to learn that Norwegian universities organize research activities in such a systematic way. Each department has research groups and collaborates not only with internal researchers but also quite actively with external researchers.

Members of the EU project and staff of the Kristiansand city office.

In my case, my research activities were based on a large-scale research project funded by the European Commission, a multinational version of Japan’s Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI). The project was called Smart Mature Resilience, or SMR for short. It received a total of 4.6 million euros in funding over three years. The participants comprised four universities, seven local governments, and two nonprofit organizations from eight countries in the European Union. The competition was intense, as only 10 percent of proposals were accepted. I was fortunate to join the project.

The project was very ambitious, having as its main aim the creation of universal knowledge by people from different countries based on research activities. Collaboration with practitioners was strongly encouraged. Even within Europe, there are diverse historical and cultural backgrounds, and different customs mean different languages. I found that it was not easy to have a common awareness. While meetings were regularly held by web conference, there were opportunities for project members to gather once every few months in consortium member countries: Spain, Norway, Britain, Sween, Germany, Latvia, Italy, and Denmark. The budget for travel expenses was huge, which I understand is one of the project’s uniqueness, enhancing collaboration between people of different backgrounds. From an efficiency point of view, it may be better to focus only on domestic projects, as this would make it easier to create a common understanding of the subject. But international projects have special benefits not found in domestic projects, and all things were priceless experiences for me.

There is another collaboration network called the European Research Center for Information Systems (ERCIS). Twenty-two countries from all continents, including Australia and the United States, participate in the inter-university network on information systems research. Only one university can participate from each country, and UiA represents Norway. A workshop is held once a year, and this network provides a platform to generate proposals for research funding including EU projects.

Resilience Research in Europe

After moving to Norway, I continued writing papers with Rick. Our aim is to elaborate the notion of resilience under the context of disaster and information systems. We used the concept of capital, which Rick has been studying for many years, as an analysis lens in revealing how information systems and their surroundings (including people) recovered after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. For my dissertation, I proposed a framework for “Frugal Information Systems” as a means of achieving a resilient society. In the capital paper, we submitted practical insights on how to make information systems more frugal and resilient. We used different types of capital in this context: economic, human, social, organizational, and symbolic. Our initial idea was presented in the International Hawaii Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) in 2016 and awarded as the best paper under the digital government research track. The paper reports three cases from the field survey on the earthquake and shows how each capital interacted with the others and formed a recovery process after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. We are currently elaborating this paper and trying to submit it to the top-tier journal in the information systems research domain.

While working on the earthquake, I had been involved in a large-scale EU research project called SMR, as discussed above. The overall purpose was to develop, test, and demonstrate a pilot version of the European Resilience[1] Management Guideline. The guideline comprises five tools to promote city resilience: the Resilience Maturity Model, Risk Systemicity Questionnaire, Resilience Building Policies, City Resilience Dynamics Model, and Resilience Information Portal. Each tool can guide cities to achieve high-level resilience maturity in different ways. I was mainly involved in the development of the Resilience Information Portal. The portal aims to create a collaborative environment among key partners (first responders and citizens) in resilience building activities. We developed the prototype of the portal and a standardization document that can be used by non-project members in creating such a portal. After a three-year project period, three series of standardization documents were developed. Five tools are available online.

 

Looking Back on My Output in the Past Three Years

During my three years in Norway, I produced two journal publications and eleven conference papers. It was indeed a very productive period. I may have worked too much. I also had the opportunity to co-teach three courses and offer several guest lectures to Norwegian students, which gave me great teaching experiences. I met wonderful people from all over the world through international conferences, the SMR project, and a researchers’ network centered around UiA. I am grateful for the environment and know this is not something that is available to everyone who wants it.

I hope that my story about this journey that began in the United States can give insights to those who aspire to develop an international career. I felt strong anxiety in my first year in Norway, but a colleague of mine encouraged me by saying, “Take it easy, have fun!” I always remember this comment when I feel any fear.

As a concluding remark, I would like to thank the Sylff Association for supporting me in my journey toward a wonderful academic career.

University of Agder

 

 

[1] The ability of a system, community, or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to, and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions. (2009 UNISDR Terminology on Disaster Risk Reduction)

 

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A Disaster-Resilient, “Frugal” Information System

September 26, 2014
By 19642

In March 2011, the Tohoku region of Japan suffered the worst earthquake and tsunami disaster to ever hit the country. Hampering rescue and relief activities in the immediate aftermath of the quake was the serious damage to the communications infrastructure. How can an information system be built that is more resilient to major disasters? Mihoko Sakurai, a Sylff fellow at Keio University, believes that the key to such a system is “frugality.”

* * *

The Arch, the university’s academic symbol.

The Arch, the university’s academic symbol.

My current research on disaster-resilient information systems (IS) was prompted by the March 11, 2011, earthquake in northern Japan—the largest quake the country ever experienced. The Great East Japan Earthquake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. The tsunami caused by the quake reached 40 meters in height and hit Tohoku’s eastern coastline, severely damaging a very wide area and triggering great confusion. Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency reports that 18,958 people died, 6,219 were injured, and 2,655 are missing as of March 2014; 127,291 houses were totally lost, and more than 1,000,000 were partially destroyed.

Field Survey in Japan

The earthquake and tsunami exposed the vulnerability of Japan’s information communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, as the loss of communication greatly hampered rescue and relief efforts and more than likely increased the death toll.

From November 2011 to February 2012, eight months after the earthquake, I and other members of our research team conducted structured interviews with 13 municipal governments in the areas hardest hit by the earthquake. The objective of the survey was to ascertain how ICT systems inside municipal offices were affected by the earthquake. We visited Miyako, Otsuchi, Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata, Kesennuma, Minamisanriku, Ishinomaki, Higashimatsushima, Sendai, Minamisoma, and Iwaki, as well as evacuation centers in Namie and Futaba.

These municipalities are located in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Under the administrative structure of the Japanese government, municipalities occupy the third rung. At the top of the ladder is the national government; this is followed by the 47 prefectural governments and 1,742 municipal governments (as of May 1, 2013) at the local level. The size of municipal governments varies enormously; while big cities like Osaka and Yokohama have a few million residents, some small villages have a population of less than 1,000.

There are several types of municipalities in Japan, namely, shi (cities with a population of over 50,000), cho or machi (towns variously defined by each prefecture), son or mura (villages), and tokubetu-ku (the 23 special wards of Tokyo). The populations of the municipalities we visited varied from 2,000 to 70,000. Almost all of them were small cities. Legally speaking, the role of municipal governments is to provide public services to citizens and, perhaps most importantly, to maintain a registry of all residents—the data that serves as the foundation of government. Prefectures are defined more loosely as wide-area governments.

Our survey included questions on preparedness, the level of damage, and the recovery process of ICT equipment, including power supply, network connectivity, information systems, and related facilities.

Need for Disaster-Resilient Systems

Analyses of these cases led us to conclude that building a robust system that never fails is impossible and to recognize that creative field responses are of crucial importance. The immediate problem after the March 2011 earthquake was the failure of the supporting infrastructure needed to run the information systems. The physical destruction of servers also meant that residential records were lost in some areas. The survey also revealed that a uniform plan across all municipalities would not have been appropriate, since the situation in various towns and cities—and the necessary responses—were continually changing. Government buildings were generally sturdy, and most survived the tsunami. But this did not mean that the ICT system survived intact. Some municipal offices did not recover their information systems for four months.

This should prompt a rethinking of ICT system design to ensure that communication can be maintained, especially in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster. Resilient systems are needed that can maintain or recover their core functions flexibly and quickly. Flexibility is required to enable creative responses in a disaster situation using minimal resources. Such systems are particularly important for municipal governments, which need to embark on rescue and life-saving activities immediately after a disaster.

This is a totally different approach from that required during normal times. The national government has tried to create robust and special systems for disaster situations, but they have not always had the required resilience in the face of actual severe situations. Once they are destroyed, moreover, they cannot be restored quickly.

“Frugality” as an Essential Concept

The “frugal information system” concept can be useful in building such a resilient system. This is an information system that is “developed and deployed with minimal resources to meet the preeminent goal of the client.” Such a system would be important under disaster situations, when people have limited access to resources. A frugal system is characterized by the four U’s: “universality,” the drive to overcome the friction of information systems’ incompatibilities; “ubiquity,” the drive to access information unconstrained by time and space; “uniqueness,” the drive to know precisely the characteristics and location of a person or entity; and “unison,” the drive for information consistency.

Mobile devices can serve as a standard platform to meet these “4U” requirements.

They were indeed the most widely used means of communication by individuals in the wake of the 3.11 disaster. The mobile infrastructure was restored with greater ease than other systems (ubiquitous network). They have open interfaces (universality). The phone number or SIM ID can be used for the identification of individuals (uniqueness). And as soon as the networks are restored, data can be backed up on cloud data storage (unison). There is the additional benefit that power can be easily supplied to the handsets.

Smartphones can be particularly useful devices in a disaster situation. People are gaining familiarity with these phones through daily use, which is very important under panic situations. Following a disaster, people are unlikely to use tools with which they are unfamiliar.

Future Research

I am currently working on a project to build a prototype smartphone application that employs the principles of resilient design. A test will be conducted in October 2014 at Tome, Miyagi, which was one of the cities heavily affected by the disaster. The initial test will involve the use of smartphones as part of an evacuation center’s operations during the first week. Three key functions will be tested, namely, (1) the identification and registration of people at the center using their phone numbers or SIM IDs, (2) recording people’s arrival and departure, and (3) creating an evacuee database. Using the smartphone’s number, the application can enable the transmission of information on such required items as medicine and milk for infants.

Smartphone applications designed to support disaster victims already exist. But none are suitable for municipal disaster relief operations. If municipal officials use the same applications as residents, the sharing of information can be greatly facilitated, enabling a smoother delivery of relief supplies. What we need to do is to make sure such applications are operational and widely used before they are needed and are quickly made available after a disaster.

The Great East Japan Earthquake posed what might have been the biggest possible challenge to an information society, making us acutely aware that our daily life—as well as government operations to help people in need—rely heavily on the ICT infrastructure. The performance of nearly all activities in advanced economies has become dependent on ICT, and disasters illustrate the fragility of this dependence. The earthquake shook our confidence in technology, and a study of its effects indicates the importance of designing systems with a recovery model in mind.

The University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

The University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

Massive disasters are likely to become more common around the world in the years to come 1, as suggested by the fact that there were three times as many natural disasters between 2000 and 2009 as between 1980 and 19892. I believe that a correct understanding of resilience and the development of information systems designed to withstand severe conditions can make the world a safer plain which to live. This research is certainly not over.

In closing, I would like to express my gratitude to the Tokyo Foundation for supporting my research abroad. Thanks to an SRA award, I was able to conduct research at the University of Georgia, where my ideas were greatly enhanced under the supervision Dr. Richard Watson—regents professor and J. Rex Fuqua distinguished chair for Internet strategy in the Department of Management Information Systems at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business—who advocates the notion of a frugal information system.


1http://www.emdat.be/natural-disasters-trends, last accessed June 8 2014.
2http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-blogs/climatechange/steady-increase-in-climate-rel/19974069, last accessed June 8 2014.

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Sylff Winds Workshops and Concerts: An Exemplary Collaboration between Cultures

October 23, 2012
By 19673

Last April, when I first heard about the Tokyo Foundation’s project, Together in Tohoku Workshops and Concert, I was immediately interested. I had never been to Japan, and the simple thought of making the trip was most exciting. When I learned of the project’s scale, I was even more eager to participate, for such a combined artistic and humanitarian initiative resonates profoundly with my own vision of the artist’s role in society as a citizen-musician.

A year and a half ago, when I saw the tragic events experienced by the inhabitants of the Tohoku region, I felt extremely sad and helpless by the enormity of it all. I was frustrated not to be able to help and could only observe the horror unfold on my television screen. I saw a nation deploy all its energy and courage to try to save its citizens. The Sylff project in Tohoku, in which I was lucky enough to participate, provided me with an opportunity to act and contribute—at my own level—in playing a small part in rebuilding the devastated region.

From what I observed, working with 18 saxophonists within an overall group of a hundred musicians aged 13 to 22, I felt that the orientation of the Japanese students was significantly different from that of the French. The Japanese have very good ensemble techniques and excellent orchestral practice habits. My contribution was needed in the area of individual technique. The reverse would have been true in France. This can probably be explained by the difference between the two music education systems. The students had a wonderful spirit, and showed a great thirst to learn.

At the beginning of the week, I found my group very reserved and shy. But this didn’t last long! In the end, each one showed himself to be extremely open-minded and determined. At first, we “coaches” felt hindered by our ignorance of Japanese and by the paucity of translators and interpreters, but this soon gave way, and the magic of music’s universality allowed us to give several private lessons. Personally, I found the challenge of questioning my own teaching methods and ways of communing particularly rewarding. On the last day, to my great surprise, during the small reception given after the special concert in Suntory Hall, I realized that many of the students actually spoke a little English but had not dared say a word!

The experience of working with these young people, victims of the tragedy, was a profoundly moving and exciting one for me. Behind their apparent timidity, I met sensitive, generous, and thoughtful human beings. In fact, I discovered an entire culture during my week in Japan.

Visiting Ishinomaki was a highlight. Seeing this devastated city was a real shock. So many empty spaces in the middle of the city, formerly occupied by houses and buildings, in which grass was growing back; the numerous houses whose ground floors had been destroyed; the school whose blackened walls were destroyed by fire after being covered by the sea; and the incongruous everyday objects still dotting the landscape: They all bore testimony to the ravages of the tragedy.

The concert we performed in this city was both sad and inspiring, coming as it did following our tour of the city by bus. We saw members of the public, often with tears in their eyes, listening to us perform in a community center which had doubtless been used as a shelter. I hope we were able to transmit our sense of hope and caring.

The week in Japan also allowed me to meet Sylff fellows from Paris, New York, and Vienna and to share an experience of living in communion with people I did not know but with whom I shared common interests. I loved meeting the Sylff coordinators—such caring people—and all the extraordinary volunteers involved, including the translators and musicians. I really hope to stay in touch with the people involved in the project.

Following our Suntory Hall concert, David Panzl and I started developing a joint chamber project which should lead to further concerts in Europe. Thanks to Facebook, we have also been able to share pictures and to stay in touch with many of the students.

In the end, I believe I learned at least as much as the students we were there to coach. This experience has made a profound impact on me, and I think how lucky I was to be a part of it. I’d be delighted to participate in similar projects in the future! As students, we often travel—sometimes long distances—to reach teachers in academies or music courses. Here, it was the opposite, with “coaches” from different countries coming together to work with a group of students, to share know-how, and make music together. The presence of outstanding musical personalities, such as Keiko Abe, was also important. The precious moments we shared, in which the concept of distance become relative, struck me as being truly original. This collaboration between cultures will be, I hope, a precursor of future ones.

I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Sylff program, the Tokyo Foundation, the Paris Conservatoire, Juilliard, and Vienna, as well as all the many project partners.

Read more Together in Tohoku articles here.