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September 08, 2005

Teaching Hurricane Katrina - What can an Informaticist do?

Teaching Hurricane Katrina - What can an Informaticist do?

Last night I lead a discussion in my Introduction to Informatics class loosely based on the recent happening along the Gulf Coast. You can check out my PowerPoint slides at .

My goals for the hour and fifteen minute class was for the 45 undergrads to begin to think about how such disasters are possible for all of us. In other words it is not just something that can happen to "them" but something that could happen to any of us. Secondly my goal was for these budding Informaticists to begin to see how their current and future skills can be used to assist those in need and can be used to help prevent, or at least limit the magnitude of, similar disasters.

First I contextualized the discussion by introducing the New Madrid Fault to the class. The New Madrid is a major fault line that runs through parts of five states - Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Secondary fault systems also pull in parts of Indiana and Mississippi. See for a bit of history and a map.

Then I showed the students a map of Indiana with known and inferred fault lines marked. This map shows that very few if any of the student's life more than 20 miles from a fault line that is in communication with the New Madrid Fault.

Once we had the context in place I talked a bit about the history of the New Madrid. In particular that the last major earthquake along the fault in 1811 was so strong that the Mississippi River flowed backwards and aftershocks were felt across the United States. Many geologists estimate that the 1811 earthquake was at least an 8 on the Richter scale.

Lose of life was low because the immediate area was sparsely populated almost 200 years ago. However if a similar earthquake were to happen today it is estimated that 60% of Memphis would be destroyed. Likewise St. Louis would experience significant damage. The loss of life would be, will be, staggering.

Then I announced that geologists have developed a method that will accurately predict an earthquake no more than 24 hours before the incident. (We wish that prediction were a true possibility!) And they have predicted an earthquake of minimum 6 on the Richter scale which will impact all of us in only 24 hours. I then gave them five minutes to individually list a minimum of five things they would do before the earthquake hit.

At the end of the time I asked the class who had either listed or developed their list with the idea that they were leaving for a safer area. The majority of the class raised their hands. Then I asked who had either listed or framed their list with the idea that they were staying in their homes. About 10% of the class raised their hands.

I then talked to the group that had said they were leaving for a safer place and asked them where they were going and how they were getting there. Most said they would head for the homes of family members who lived away from the projected damage area. Some said they would head for preferred vacation-type locals using commercial airlines.

We then pulled together their lists of what they needed to do before they left into a master list on the board. Examples from those answers include arranging rendezvous points with family members and friends, securing their places of residence, buying supplies including food and water, contacting their insurance agents, and arranging for pets. As we completed the list one student pointed out that none of them could do everything they listed and still drive out of the danger zone in 24 hours.

Next we moved to the students who said they would stay. When asked their reasons for staying even after a warning that this would be a very dangerous earthquake they gave reasons such as:

- Since the roads would be clogged with others trying to get away they figured they were better off preparing as well as they could and staying at home so they would not be caught by the earthquake while still on the highway.

- One student said that unless the prediction specifically said that their home would be in the direct path of the earthquake they would stay because there was no proof that they might not be in more danger by moving then by staying.

- Another student said they knew what resources were available to them where they were and would not have the same knowledge in a new location.

Then as we did with the students who said they would leave we gathered their to-do lists on the board. There were, of course, many areas of overlap with the lists of those that were leaving including purchasing food and water, batteries and battery operated appliances like radios, and gasoline. In addition to those items the students who were staying listed things like generators, wood to secure their homes, and emergency supplies like sleeping bags and tents to their lists. Once the list was completed they commented that they would have a difficult time making most of the purchases on the list within the 24-hours after the announcement of the impending earthquake as those items would sell out quickly.

Then we talked about how the exercise is a thinly veiled effort to have them look at their situations in light of what has happened to those along the Gulf Coast. I asked them what they thought our responsibilities as Informaticists were in light of what they have seen happen in the last week and with the insights we have garnered through the individual exercise. I had a list of Informatics areas of specialization on a slide including, Bio Informatics, Chemical Informatics, Health Informatics, Human Computer Interaction, New Media, and Social Informatics. We then discussed ways that people with these specialties could help those that have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina and ways that they could help to prevent the level of disaster we have seen in Katrina's aftermath.

In specific we talked about the problems of lost medical records of those that have been displaced and what solutions were possible to reclaim information now and prevent the loss in the future. Likewise we talked about large scale databases to provide information on chemicals that could become hazards after a disaster. Due to the limited time for this lecture, one hour and fifteen minutes, we did not focus on other issues surrounding large scale databases such as the ethics of gathering such information, information security, or infrastructure issues. Though I did include comments that there were many associated issues with these solutions that would have to be considered before one would implement them, in specific I did list the three areas mentioned here.

Lastly I introduced this week's lab assignment, the text of which follows. The lab assignment is designed to promote volunteerism by asking students to use their Informatics skills, if possible, to assist others or to have them think through ways their current or future Informatics skills could be used to prevent some facet of the disaster or to improve the quality of life for those impacted.

You have two choices for this lab from which you must select one for credit. Please feel free to do both if you have the time to do so or to exceed the volunteer times listed here.

  1. Volunteer a minimum of one hour and fifteen minutes to assist those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Examples would be volunteering at the Red Cross Call Center (see ), or through the Red Cross efforts at the State Fair Grounds. There are many many opportunities out there to donate this minimum amount of time. Use some creativity and find an organization that has need of your skills.
    1. Document your time with a note or letter on official organizational stationary.
    2. Or though a copy of the internet screen that annotates the completed project, for online work.
    3. Or a snap shot of you working will do as well. Just make sure I can identify what organization you are helping.
  1. Scan newspapers and news magazines in paper form or online. Find a minimum of three articles related to the Hurricane Katrina disaster where someone with either 1) the informatics skills you currently possess, or 2) the informatics skills you expect to have upon completion of your degree could assist or could have assisted those impacted. The assistance must have a positive impact upon their life situation either through preventing injury, prolonging life, improving current conditions, or positioning them for future survival and success.
    1. Once you have your articles write a short paper (3 pages maximum) that describes how your skills could be used to improve conditions for those described in the news stories.
    2. Turn in your paper through the Oncourse Assignment page. Include full APA or MLA citations for your three articles, and URLs if available. Check the IUPUI Libraries Quick Reference Resources: Style Guides (see ) for information on both formats.
    3. Please do not use examples given in class. Thank you.

The class is racially, economically, and age diverse and there is a roughly even split between men and women. I was pleased that many of the students participated in the class by giving ideas and insights during the hands-on exercise. As we moved into the section asking how we as Informaticists could help discussion declined though the students were attentive with strong backchannel communication from head nodding, direct eye contact, and note taking.

As for the lab, I have already had several emails and comments from students about volunteering including at least one who completed her lab requirement earlier this morning.

Posted by prolurkr at September 8, 2005 03:05 PM

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