Quake spurs youth cyber relief work

The Bangkok Post

The recent 7.3-magnitude aftershock which followed the earlier 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal has again drawn global attention. The death toll has already surpassed 8,100. Still, it is hard to imagine the scale of devastation had the earthquakes occurred 15 years ago. Several thousand more people would have died, and much of the world would still be unaware of the catastrophe.

But, cellular technology towers withstood the quake while the buildings around them crumbled. Before the mainstream media reports came out, news from individual sources had quickly penetrated social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Despite limited technological capacity, what is outstanding is how constructively it has been used during the present disaster, despite only a quarter of the population having access to the internet and 90% of them using only a 2G connection.

The media organisations which rushed to Kathmandu and its vicinity in the aftermath of the disaster are sharing the stories that they should be covering — the grim reality on the ground. However, the international media is also portraying Nepal as if everything has ended. This is doom mongering, as the quake has in fact triggered many positive instances of social behaviour.

Social media has been greatly instrumental in the relief operations taking place in the country. In particular, Nepalese youth are showing an unprecedented level of commitment. The international media to some extent has failed to share these stories of initiatives led by the younger generation.

In fact, this strata of the population was one of the first to take part in rescue efforts. Nepalese youth are making optimum use of internet technology to aid the relief work. Their Facebook walls demonstrate the amazing work that they are doing despite limited resources and skills.

In the aftermath of the disaster, technology giants such as Skype facilitated youth endeavours by announcing free calls to and from Nepal. Fortunately, those young people with a smartphone or laptop connected to the internet, reached out to temporary refugee camps, and began to help families to connect to their relatives.

In the face of calamity, people have teamed up and initiated online help desks to connect those who are far away with their family members at home. It is usually arduous to negotiate congested international communications networks in such a distressing situation. However, all you now need to do to reach your friends is to send these teams a message on Facebook or via Twitter. They then often find your family within a few minutes.

Furthermore, within hours of each of the two big tremors, Facebook introduced the safety check feature, where people could mark friends on as “Safe”. People hurried to mark their friends safe in order to reassure acquaintances at home and abroad.

In another instance, young people teamed up to use Google’s Person Finder tool to fill in the information of missing people, and those with information about someone started feeding their information into the system.

Hundreds of young people have gathered and are using their social media skills to discover where the relief is needed most, and then they pledge donations like tarpaulins, rice, or medicine. The relief material is then transported to the most hard-hit areas by volunteers, who also establish local communications and identify local youths who can serve as channels for the relief work.

The creative uses of social media have also led young people to report data regarding physical and human losses as well as to assess the availability of temporary camps and relief supplies. Youth-driven teams are crowdsourcing the information. Now, anyone with a basic cell phone can report physical damage or loss of life as well as seek help.

As the nation receives more aid from abroad, both in terms of resources and personnel, there are admittedly increased chances of financial misconduct, and the effectiveness of some of the aid work may be questioned. To address these concerns and facilitate effective aid delivery, youth groups and relief organisations are implementing a social audit of the rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts in order to make the post-disaster efforts more reliable, accountable and effective.

There is much to be learned from these independent voluntary initiatives in terms of disaster preparedness. There is a need for social immunisation by introducing strict guidelines for construction companies, as well as earthquake-preparedness classes, based on the experience of nations like Thailand.

Governments in areas of the globe vulnerable to earthquakes should have strong post-disaster relief mechanisms ready, and the youth should be equipped with basic first-aid training. Furthermore, the technology to act transparently, and democratically should be embedded in each and every step that we as societies decide to take. This use of technology and the mobilisation of youth have the potential to create resilience and keep hope alive even in adverse circumstances.

The article originally appeared in the Opinion section of The Bangkok Post on May 19, 2015.

Students from the global south embrace open online courses

In conversation with Matt McGarrity, Senior Lecturer in the Communication Department at the University of Washington, whose Intro to Public Speaking course is one of the most popular MOOC’s. (Photo by Ranak Martin)
Think of all of the stress you might suffer applying to get into an Ivy League school — and all the money you’d spend to actually attend one.
Well believe it or not, these days the courses offered by these Ivy League universities are available free of cost in few clicks. These online courses have been hailed for “democratizing” higher education.
A typical MOOC — shorthand for “Massive Open Online Course”  — uses a blend of technologies like virtual classrooms, discussion forums, online texts and libraries, video lectures, wikis and web videos.
Leading platforms for online learning include Udacity and Khan Academy, as well as newcomers Coursera and edx.
From my home in Nepal, I took “Introduction to Sociology” with Princeton Professor Mitchell Duneier in 2012, and was eventually invited to visit Princeton University (in person) because of my active participation in the online course. Ever since then, MOOCs have been a subject of great interest to me. I’ve taken more than a few MOOCs myself and always enjoyed them.
But I wondered about the experience of other students from the global South.
How did they find out about the courses? What motivated them to take the course, and to stick with it? What platform did they use for the course? What struggles did they face while taking the course?
“I read about it in the news and then decided to go for it,” says Ankur Jhunjhunwala, 25, a student of Faculty of Management Studies (FMS) at Delhi University, in India explaining how he first found out about MOOCs. “I took the course before joining MBA because I had free time; I take the courses today because I can add them to my CV.”
Jhunjhunwala has completed three courses on Coursera: “Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity,” “Introduction to Philosophy” and “What Managers can Learn from Great Philosophers”
Referring to the wide range of the availability of the courses Jhunjhunwala adds, “Why should I have any confusion in tapping the opportunity to learn world class content residing in the third world?”
However, not everyone who signs up completes their courses — not by a long shot.
“I signed up for 15 courses and completed five courses,” says Tara Ballav Adhikari, a government employee from Nepal.
“I completed one of the courses on economics and I was not motivated to complete the coursework in second course because I took this course out of curiosity,” says Dikshya Dhakal, a student of Economics at North Seattle College.
“I would be more serious about the course if I would get the credit for it,” Dhakal adds with a faint smile. “I would be even more serious if I had to pay for it.”
Dhakal’s subtle humor reminded me of Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX talking about “active learning” — where a learner has the control of the learning pace and constantly interacts with the content — in the Harvard Edcast: edX Marks the Spot.
I wondered how educators like Agarwal will be able to meet the aspiration of students like Dhakal.
Coursera, one of the leading MOOCs providers. (Photo by Saifullah Muhammad)

Coursera, one of the leading MOOCs providers. (Photo by Saifullah Muhammad)
A recent Coursera blog claims to have 7.5 million learners from 190 countries on its website and offers courses from more than 100 renowned educational institutions.
Another platform, edX has several courses offered by prominent universities ranging from the computer sciences to law and literature. The user base of the platform has increased to over 1.6 million.
But a study done by Harvard and MIT earlier this year showed that only five percent (43,196) of the total signups in the first 17 courses offered by edX actually earned the certificate by completing the coursework.
This horrifying statistic has forced many people to consider MOOCs a failure. But on the other hand, with so many students signing up, even that low completion rate is yielding huge numbers of certified students who might otherwise never get an opportunity to learn that material.
“Comparing a small classroom with MOOCs is wrong!” says Matt McGarrity, senior lecturer in the communication department at the University of Washington who has reached over 300,000 people with his public speaking MOOCs on both Coursera and edX. “It is like comparing a novel with a movie adapted from that very novel. Novel is a different genre and the movie is different. Standards from one can inform the critique of the other but should not dictate it.”
But Adhikari says no matter what the critique are, he will continue taking the MOOCs.
“Despite the poor internet service and 16 hours of power cut every day, having the access to world-class courses free of cost gives me a sense of privilege.”
(This article originally appeared in www.Seattleglobalist.com on August 6, 2014)

Tale of a RADIO

Emergence of e-Radios like iTunes and Pandora has threatened the existence of conventional radio. When even the commercial radio stations are facing a threat and challenge for the survival. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to visit KUOW and understand how the private, not for profit radio is operating and coping with the challenges of changing media landscape.
It was interesting to learn that the broadcast region of the radio extends across Seattle, the Puget Sound region and Western Washington. I was also amazed to explore that the radio served nearly 419,100 listeners* each week.
Furthermore, the revenue model adopted by the radio was very new for me. We hardly have any radios that are operated by donations. The 2013 annual report of the Radio stated that in the fiscal year 2013, 63% of the revenue was individual support, 23% business support, 9% institutional support and 2% were other sources.
Even the broadcast advertisements are less than 20 seconds and contain direct message. This model eliminates the potential influence from the advertisers on the content broadcast through the radio. The studio can win the trust of the audiences for broadcasting the unbiased news.
In addition, the strategies adopted by the radio to retain its competitive edge in the changing media landscape was very exciting. Though the primary focus of the radio is radio programs, still they have invested heavily in the online platforms.
It was exciting to learn that the Human Resource in the technical departments, web department and social media has doubled compared to the last year. The changing Human Resources patterns also indicate that there have been increased efforts to provide the radio programs and contents in the web.
KUOW has also two intensive programs that help young students to meet their learning aptitude through a program called Radioactive Youth Media and support the media initiative through KUOW venture fund. Which is a positive step on the part of KUOW to strengthen radio journalism in the region. The way it serves as a practical school is a very rare sight in my home country.
During the conversation, I learnt that the reporters and journalists have changed the way they used to prepare programs. Only audio would work for the radio programs a couple of years back, however, now the same person would also need to prepare the text version for web as well as audio for radio.
The way the length of talk shows have declined to 10 minutes from 40 minutes long portrays that there has been a fundamental shift in the radio programming at the KUOW. However, people working in the stations are cynical about the way things have changed and fear that the programs might lose their qualitative strength with the change. They are also waiting for the feedback from the audience for the recent changes.