Among the “Digital Do-Gooders”

Planet in Focus Festival 2011

Toronto – I’m happy to be part of a great panel of multi-platform storytellers talking about “entertaining content that motivates activism” on the Digital Do-Gooders panel at Planet in Focus, this Friday in Toronto.

Looking forward to hearing from Jason Gilmore (The Next Day), Gerry Flahive (NFB’s Highrise), Ana Serrano (CFC Media Lab), Tony Walsh (Phantom Compass), and moderator Derek Luis.

I’ll be speaking about Inside Disaster Haiti, and how we used educational and interactive documentary content to help audiences understand the “survivor perspective” and overall complexity of the humanitarian relief operation in Haiti.

Join us! Friday Oct. 14th at 11:15
Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Ave.)

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Let’s stop dumbing down humanitarian work

Public perception and understanding of humanitarian emergencies is at a dangerous level.

Aid agencies and governments have gotten in the bad habit of creating media, educational and fundraising content that over-simplifies the reality on the ground, creates public expectations about humanitarian work which simply can’t be fulfilled, and will inevitably come back to haunt us.

This was the framing argument of my presentation last week to the 2011 World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, as part of the Media and Information Technology in Humanitarian Action panel.

I was at the conference to talk about Inside Disaster Haiti, the educational website and “serious game” about the response to the Haiti earthquake that I helped produce last year, as part of the PTV Productions team.

I presented Inside Disaster as an example of what I called “strategic complication” — letting the public in on some of the messy but fascinating realities and contradictions of humanitarian work.

Simplification is inevitable… but dumbing down isn’t

Humanitarian emergencies and the organized response to them are really, really complicated.  Forces of nature collide with a volatile human mixture of historical, political, economic, cultural, and power dynamics.

That makes them hard to understand, especially for people experiencing them as filtered through media, on the other side of the world.  The interesting thing is, this is not a new problem.  Here’s Walter Lippman struggling with the same issue in 1922:

For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety … to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. – From Public Opinion

Today we still face the same quandary that Lippman was writing about 90 years ago — but exacerbated by our 24-hour fire hose of information from around the globe.

So to even process, let alone understand what’s happening around us, some kind of simplification is inevitable. In talking about humanitarian emergencies, I argue that we’ve done it in two key ways: the Big Picture perspective, and the close-up.

the close-up

The close-up delivers just one story: someone is suffering, and someone is alleviating that suffering.

Smart bloggers like Alanna Shaikh have already pointed out that these images do work, but in a very problematic way.  They’re usually presented through perspective of journalists and aid workers, and frame the beneficiaries as passive problems to be dealt with.

the big picture

Giving the public the key bullet points of an event through a “Big Picture” view is also very standard practice, both in journalism and in the kind of new media education work that I do.

As an example, check out Stop Disasters!, created by the UN-ISDR, which gives you what I call the “God’s-eye view” of a humanitarian challenge — in this case, that a town full of people will be swept away when a tsunami comes.  The game gives you all the information you need to make a decision, in the sidebar, and infinite power to make everyone do what you tell them to. Just like in real life!

Another “big picture” view is the much-maligned Facebook game The City That Shouldn’t Exist.  In his one you’re a white muscular humanitarian hero who gets woken from his bed in Brussels at 3am with the news that “refugees are on the move”.

You sit down at your computer and up comes your “Resource Channel” on the left, and a link to the the camp on the right:

And through your screen, you begin to literally grab refugees from outside the camp and drag them inside, then throw food, water and medicine at them — which they voraciously consume.  And if you don’t do it fast enough, they get reduced to piles of bones.

So this was problematic in a few ways.

These kinds of “big picture” educational games create the impression that humanitarian agencies are all-powerful beings, who can control things which, in reality, are not actually under their control.

And when we raise expectations that people and resources can be moved around as easily as on a laptop screen, that makes it very hard for the public to understand why aid delivery is so slow in chaotic, messy environments like Haiti.

Piles of garbage and debris spill onto the street

blowback?

Both the big-picture and close-up perspectives make promises which are extremely difficult, if not impossible to deliver in the real world.

When an organization implies it will alleviate the suffering in Haiti I’m seeing on my television screen, and I give it money to fulfill that promise, and then two years later I’m still seeing that suffering —  there’s a credibility gap that gets created.

Shallow, disingenuous communication about the reality of humanitarian work may be effective in the short term, but I think it will lead to pubic blowback for fundraisers and governments in the long term.

Inside Disaster & “Strategic Complication”

Inside Disaster was a multi-platform documentary storytelling project about the Haiti earthquake and humanitarian work that tried to do things differently.  The project had four key components:

  1. A multimedia blog from Haiti that launched the same day as the quake;
  2. A three-part documentary series following the IFRC response in Haiti;
  3. An educational website for people who want to know more about the past and present of humanitarian work, and how it was applied in Haiti;
  4. A first-person simulation that allows users to make decisions in the aftermath of the earthquake from the perspective of a journalist, survivor, or aid worker.

The combination of incredible documentary material, a solid budget, long timeline, smart advisors and a great production team gave us the chance to create “strategically complicated” media that would help users understand some of the real-world challenges and complexity of the Haiti operation…

…. including some of the political and economic context that exacerbated this “natural disaster”:

… give advice to people on how to be effective donors:

… … and how not to be, from the “Donations Hall of Shame“:

Over 20 people in Canada, Haiti, and Europe worked directly on this project, in addition to the hundreds of academics and journalists whose work we drew on for every aspect of the site (for an example look here).

The project took a year to produce, and cost close to half a million dollars, which was mostly from public funding in Canada.  So this is not a realistic standard for humanitarian agencies on a fundraising drive to compare themselves to, but I hope it will provide an example of the kinds of big picture, messy and very interesting conversations about humanitarian work that I sincerely believe the public is ready to have.