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QuickPanel: Disaster Relief


Natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan, which last month devastated much of the Philippines, bring immense information challenges, from reports and warnings issued beforehand to the web sites that handle donations afterward.  How does UX factor into disaster preparedness and response?  We asked a panel of experts to weigh in.  

How have web and mobile technology changed the donation process for example, the ability to text donations?  Have non-profits such as Kickstarter, Indigogo, and Crowdtilt raised the bar for easy experiences?

Lisa WelchmanLisa Welchman:  I believe these sorts of organizations have improved the experience for donation, but they’ve also crowded the field, which makes it hard for donors to determine the nature and status of the organizations doing the fundraising. We all want to be sure that we are donating to an organization that will make most effective use of our funds. On the positive side, newer donation methods make it easier for an individual to target their donation either to a specific geographic region or to fill a particular gap in infrastructure, such as housing or food supply.  And, the ease of donation can also put demands on the physical supply chain.

Non-profits should take care to understand the full process, from making the quick donation all the way to the goods or monetary instruments reaching those who need them.  Kiva loans are powerful, for instance, because there is a direct connection between the one supplying the loan and the one receiving it. That connection, and reporting back on the use of the loan, helps give the donor the confidence that they are really making a difference.

Kelly GotoKelly Goto: When Katrina hit in 2005, I donated using Red Cross because I had heard it was the best way to ensure your money was going to the right places at the right time. Later, I donated to my local church, which was very well connected to local churches in the hurricane-hit area.  That seemed even more direct and helpful but a fluke because it was based on a personal relationship. Today, there are sites that help you vett who to donate to, and the ability to send $10 via SMS is compelling and very friction-free. The “crowdsourced” assurance that your funds are going in the right direction works on that local community-based level, which feels the most impactful.

There was some debate over Kiva in the last few years, where you were not assured that the micro loans were being handled properly, and the information on the web site was not 100 percent clear or accurate. Local/community-based services such as Task Rabbit and AirBnB help jumpstart activity on a local level while assuring systems of privacy and protection are in place. The same local-based mentality of helping someone you know or a project you respect via Kickstarter, or joining a smaller cause where you can see the effect directly, does seem to have more emotional resonance, and thus a bigger impact for smaller funds. Not only is the experience friction-free, but the meaning is there, thus the desire to join in and believe you can make an impact.

Whitney Quesenbery:  The ability to text a small donation, charged to your phone, is an amazingly successful way to allow people to act on their natural, human impulse to help out in a crisis.  Ushahidi and similar SMS-based systems let everyone not only have access to information, but contribute information as well.

We see this sort of bottom-up information system in our daily commute. Drivers’ reports of accidents or traffic jams are reported on maps and even in radio traffic updates. And the data from navigation systems supports real-time predictions of travel time.

Mobile money is also having a profound effect on humanitarian aid. Getting supplies into the affected area is important, but this article in User Experience describes how relief agencies are using mobile money so that families can make their own decisions about what they need and have the resources to get it.  The author, Gabrielle Smith, writes, “There has been overwhelming evidence from many humanitarian relief efforts around the world, that cash transfers give people more dignity and flexibility in meeting their day-to-day needs.” Isn’t that a goal worth designing for?

Is there anything we can take away from Haiyan to be applied to future catastrophes?

Kelly Goto:  There was a disconnect of language and communication on a very straightforward level that really hit me. The term “storm surge” rather than “tsunami” was used and unheeded by so many. No one knew what a storm surge was but everyone knew what a tsunami was. If the government and news had used “tsunami”, I heard 80 percent more people would have evacuated, even if the term wasn’t 100 percent correct.  (A tsunami is a wave or series of waves caused by an earthquake in the ocean that come in as rapid surges. A storm surge is caused by a hurricane, typhoon or cyclone. They are wind-driven, generally come in more slowly, and are easier to predict.)

How we handle these warnings and respond now, as well as take lessons away for the future, is a “life cycle” of great magnitude. Kind of like two friends of mine who have PhDs in social welfare, but one’s on the hands-on side of social work and the other on the policy/plan-for-the-future side.  It takes both disciplines to make change happen, over time, while dealing with the crisis on the ground.

I could not help but think about an amazing lecture I heard by Ravi Sawheny of RKS Design on the methodology used to design the Hydropack technology—I was mesmerized to see similar frameworks we use in user research to help companies like Samsung “innovate” while RKS was using their focus to change the world.

I would like to see a brain trust (not just a think tank) of donated time from smart individuals and teams dedicated to solving more of these types of problems. As someone who lives along a tsunami warning-labeled coastline, it does hit home.

Lisa Welchman: A storm surge is a storm surge and a tsunami is a tsunami. I think accuracy is important. If people don’t know the difference, then the focus should be on educating them so that they do. Perhaps we need to stop talking about catastrophes using meteorologically focused, sound-bite naming conventions and start quantifying and talking about them in terms of the catastrophe’s impact on a number of different factors—things like loss of home, loss of life, loss of services. We do some of that already, but it would be interesting to create a scale using those factors. Folks could then be socialized into the new measurement paradigm. Storms are interesting, but what drives me to donate is their impact.

I was mesmerized to see similar frameworks we use in user research to help companies like Samsung “innovate” while RKS was using their focus to change the world.

Whitney Quesenbery:  Words and definitions are important, but it’s more important that people understand not only what they mean but what actions they should take.

That fits the definition of plain language (from Ginny Redish and international plain language organizations, including the Center for Plain Language) that clear communication means that people can

  •    Find what they need
  •    Understand what they find
  •    Act on the information

During Hurricane Sandy, my town didn’t have flooding, but our power was out for ten days. The county used the emergency-response phone systems, and neighbors went door-to-door to get out the word about both the situation and what help was available.

There was a disconnect of language and communication on a very straightforward level that really hit me.

Maybe one lesson to take away is that when information is as important as life and death, we need many different ways to communicate it: flags, sirens, phone, web, social media, person-to-person, etc.

Information after a crisis can be just as critical as clean water and medical supplies.  What can UX professionals offer in this regard?

Whitney Quesenbery: I’m working on a project with the U.S. Health and Human Services emergency response planners to create tools to help them understand and manage a crisis.

There are very few UX folks inside these sorts of organizations and it shows.

As we talked to people at federal headquarters and in the regions, I was struck by their need for a big picture and a way to find and manage details—at the same time. This is just the sort of wicked problem where good UX can make a huge difference.

There is a chain of connections between national policy (How many medical response units do we deploy? What equipment and supplies do they need?) and first responders on the scene. It crosses time and geography, but also levels of government, NGOs, and citizen response. If they cannot communicate clearly in rapidly evolving events, they cannot respond well, let alone get ahead of the crisis to respond effectively.

As a UX person, there is not much I can tell dedicated professionals about their job. What I can do, however, is listen carefully to what they want and use my UX skills to shape tools that are even better than what they imagined.

One of our tools is an online “All-Hazards Plan” that uses a visualization as the main entry point. Someone at the operations center can look across different response “functional areas” to see what teams have action steps now, at any stage of the event from preparedness, through the event, and into recovery. That sort of overview is critical for good coordination. We workshopped a dozen different design ideas to find the one that worked for them.

Kelly Goto: There is a before, during and after. I think UX can be best incorporated in the “before,” much like how policy works on the welfare side. It’s not that I would choose not to address the “during” or “after”; however in our field, we can provide charts, graphics and help people visualize the situation and provide better insight on how they might react and respond.

Storms are interesting, but what drives me to donate is their impact.

I live in a coastal area of California. We have signs for tsunamis with arrows on where to go and what to do, along with a calling system for people who have regular phone lines in the area, and a local SMS system for all local alerts (traffic, emergencies, missing persons, etc.) I am signed up for these services and have seen how they work.  However, the truth is no one thinks a tsunami will actually occur, and I doubt the preparation for a real disaster is even present.

There seems to be “hurricane fatigue” in areas that are the hardest hit, so even when the danger is the most prominent and the awareness is present, people are still not aware of how impactful a natural disaster can be. Awareness at multiple levels—from individual to family to the community to local government—should include visual output and localized communications (both analog and digital). And this should also include the “what to do in the aftermath” should power and communications go dark—for example, people most often stress about their pets—and how to handle safety. Perhaps RFID tags and other devices can be also established?

Lisa Welchman:  I’m actively working with NGOs and other governmental organizations about their ability to deliver accurate information in a crisis. Much of the impetus for addressing this came from information management problems that have arisen during some recent natural disasters. How organizations determine what they say and don’t say to people in a crisis, and when they say it, is interesting—and not as organized as it could be.

This is just the sort of wicked problem where good UX can make a huge difference.

It might be interesting to explore how often the right information gets to the right person at the right time in a catastrophe and to understand what the limits are for certain channels, not just for those impacted by the catastrophe but for those trying to help others.  Catastrophes are by their nature confusing but that could be improved by more thoughtful information flow. A lot of that flow is based on legacy paper-based processes; changing that requires creative thought from people who understand the capabilities of new digital channels as well as the mission-critical agenda of governments and NGOs. There are very few UX folks inside these sorts of organizations and it shows.

Like what our experts had to say? Guess what: you can have them bring their brains to you. Kelly Goto, Whitney Quesenbery, and Lisa Welchman are available for consulting and training through Rosenfeld Media.