Can Mobile Technology Mitigate the Ebola Crisis?

By Dr. Ammina Kothari

Kothari_Ammina_LROn Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, Reuters reported that eight people including some health workers and journalists were found dead in a village latrine in a Guinean village near the city of Nzerekore. They had been trying to distribute information about Ebola when fearful villagers, who are skeptical about the virus, attacked them with stones and clubs.

This raises the question: Are there ways to utilize emerging technologies such as mobile phones and digital tools for health education and to help reduce fear and stigma associated with the deadly disease?

This is a valid question as the death toll continues to rise, and medical and humanitarian volunteers start to experience both fatigue and death threats. Stakeholders in charge of addressing this crisis are being asked to come up with innovative ways of educating people about the disease and prevention methods.

Health Workers in full protective gear in Guinea have alarmed locals. Image: Agence France Presse
Health Workers in full protective gear in Guinea have alarmed locals. Image: Agence France Presse

While Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, has been reappearing in some African countries since 1976, the 2014 outbreak is the largest in history as it not only affects multiple countries in Africa but also increases the chances of it spreading globally due to constant movement of people around the world.

Mobile technology and digital platforms are excellent tools for health workers to share health campaigns and journalists to report on a developing story, without exposing more people to the virus.

The ubiquity of cell phones and texting in most African countries provides a unique opportunity to design and communicate culturally appropriate prevention messages in local languages.

Authorities can also simultaneously help people in need of information or offer assistance from local health offices, as is being done in the case of many mobile health campaigns focusing on HIV/AIDS in developing countries. For instance my own research in Tanzania is looking at the use of cellphone technology to improve communication of HIV/AIDS-related information.

With the current Ebola outbreak journalists looking for timely statistics on fatality rates in various countries can crowd source information using a platform such as Ushahidi, which allows for both citizen tagging of cases on customized maps and aggregation of data from secondary sources.

Alternatively, more institutions could adopt the approach taken by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, which have created an online database called HealthMap – one of the first sources to identify the outbreak in March, according to mhealthnews.

The Ebola map, a feature of HealthMap, currently uses online news aggregators and other validated sources to provide real-time monitoring of the outbreak.

The case of Ebola clearly illustrates the value of health news and timely reporting, as various stakeholders rely on media reports to track the spread of the disease.


Ice Bucket Challenge: A Health Communication Win

By Tracy Worrell

Tracy2 What does ice water have to do with a neurodegenerative disease? Nothing. What do viral videos have to do with raising awareness and millions of dollars for charity? Everything. Just ask the ALS Association.

Or, ask the skeptics, critics and detractors, after all these videos aren’t curing a disease and some people aren’t even donating money. It’s just about narcissism and wet T-shirt contests. Wrong. The #alsicebucketchallenge and viral campaigns like this are meeting the No. 1 challenge of health communication, raising awareness.

Recently, in my Health Communication class at RIT, students discussed how “lame” or “uninteresting” the majority of health messages are to them. How they tune out or forget the message almost immediately after exposure.

Health campaign practitioners struggle with this on a daily basis. How does one get the message of disease across to the larger population, particularly for illnesses that are unknown? While dumping ice water on heads may not be the “go to” health campaign move it stars two groups that most people will listen to: celebrities and more importantly peers.

Millions have watched celebrities from Oprah to Katy Perry dump their buckets. Even more have witnessed their friends, for better or worse (see some of the more awkward videos), participate.

Dr Tracy Worrell takes the #alsicebucketchallenge

My best friend challenged me to dump and donate, of course I complied. I challenged my husband, brother and nephew, each one complied (albeit rather grudgingly). I then posted my video, showing my 363 friends and tagging the aforementioned nominees. The potential reach of my own narcissism – over 1,500 friends now see that their peers are talking about ALS.

Not only has awareness of ALS increased but donations have skyrocketed as well. The ALS organization reports it received $100.9 million in donations between July 29 and Aug. 29 of this year. In the same time period last year it received $2.9 million … an increase of over 3,000 percent. Here, the New York ALS has raised $4.3 million compared to $131,560 in 2013.

Not only does this awareness increase donations, but it puts ALS on the “map” when it comes to government policies, grant consideration and interest in the field of research.

This has been great news for ALS and a great study for health communication researchers. Social media may, in fact, be a stronger tool to utilize in health campaigns than anyone realized.

What’s disappointing in all of this is the number of “news” sources that belittle it all. That the challenge won’t “solve real problems” or people are only donating to the ALS now and one should “leave the fads to hula hoopers.”

My professional opinion: Get over it. Let ALS have one “win” for a disease that kills everyone who is diagnosed with it.

To donate:

The ALS website

The Charity Navigator website


Journalists’ changing priorities are being taught at RIT

By Hinda Mandell and Andrea Hickerson

Newsrooms and the journalists who work in them have for years been nervously watching as digital, mostly free, sites and services have become the go-to sources of news for many, many consumers.

Image taken from Jim Romenesko’s blog
From Jim Romenesko’s blog

Some have embraced the changes and found ways to use such things as social media to connect with a wider range of sources and listen for a broader perspective on their communities. Some have not.

Recent moves announced at some Gannett newsrooms show that the big companies behind our news sources are finally taking steps to force newsrooms to adapt to the new reality.

As reported on Jim Romenesko’s blog on The Poynter Institute website Gannett plans to introduce what it calls the ‘Newsrooms of the Future’ at several newspapers. As part of that the company telling newsroom employees to reapply for their jobs. Many of those jobs have new titles and include multiple digital and social responsibilities.

What is also being widely commented on is that these new-look newsrooms will feature people who have capabilities across many platforms and are good social media engagers and promoters of their own stories and content.

How does this impact the journalists of the future (i.e. our journalism students at RIT)?

Hinda MandellHinda Mandell: Often times I find students reluctant to promote their own work. This typically comes up in Multiplatform Journalism, where students are required to install Google Analytics on the journalism sites they create.

When students share their Google Analytics numbers in the middle of the term they’re usually fairly low. Maybe they only have five or 15 daily visits to their site. When I ask if they share new posts via Facebook or Twitter I’m often met with blank looks that I interpret as “No.”

By the end of the term it’s common for visits to jump to 150 per day – simply because students began promoting their work via their social media networks.

I totally get the hesitancy to self-promote. But you know what? We need to get over this shyness because here’s an example that when everyone self-promotes, and we don’t, then people – including future employers – assume we’re snoozing at our desks. And why would we cultivate that misperception when the opposite is true?

In this day and age, as the journalistic overhauls its priorities – and a story’s clickability is right up there – we’re only hurting ourselves when we keep our work to ourselves. Get out there and share it.

AndreaHickersonAndrea Hickerson: One of the ways RIT helps prepare journalism majors is by teaching journalism as a collaborative endeavor between people with varied skill sets including computing and business.

The Digital Journalism Incubator class specifically trains students from all majors to work together to pitch a civic problem and then experiment telling the story using different digital tools.  To see what exciting things these students are cooking up, follow it on Twitter  at #RITDJI.

I honestly believe that now is an exciting time to go into journalism.  The skill set for journalists is changing, but the public’s need for information is not.

In fact, with an ever growing menu of digital information available, I believe we need journalists more than ever to sort through the facts and tell stories with the richness and context they deserve. 

Mike Johansson helped compile this post


A new social media adventure

RIT's first all-social media class is Critical Practice in Social Media and will be offered in the Fall of 2014
Kelly Martin and Mike Johansson are the instructors for RIT’s first all-social media class

By Kelly Martin and Mike Johansson

Social media is finally getting the respect it deserves as part of the pantheon of communication technologies with its own dedicated class at RIT.

As the instructors in this first-ever class, Critical Practice in Social Media, we are both excited and feeling slightly pressured (there is so much to cram into a mere 15 weeks!).

Think about this: We want to cover all of the critical cultural issues, relevant communication theory, social organizing theory , and the legal and ethical issues as well as demonstrate the most effective uses of social media for individual and organizational purposes.

As we prepared for this class we quickly realized this could easily have been two entire classes. But in the meantime we have a course that is jam-packed and will both be challenging and fun for us and students.
So, how will this class be taught differently? We will teach a good portion of it (about a third) using social media platforms. A few brief examples of what this means …

• Showing students the value of a completed and professional Linkedin profile (something less than a third of Linkedin users have)

• Using Twitter chats, Google Hangouts and Skype to bring experts from around the world into the classroom

• Using visual platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube and Vine to demonstrate the power of visuals to show a story rather than just tell it

• Demonstrating the power of social media to uncover digital artifacts about others on social media – whether it’s to prepare for a job interview, to find sources for a news story or to understand what makes a competitor tick.

As we prepared this class we also had a feeling that we were at the beginning of something exciting for RIT.

What exactly will happen with this class? We aren’t sure … yet. But we do know that we’re looking forward to compelling discussions and experimenting with new social platforms in order to understand the very social media we are using.

Yeah, we have new students!

RIT's annual Tiger Walk welcomes incoming freshman to campus
Thousands of incoming freshmen are welcomed to the RIT campus by faculty and staff each August as they march in the Tiger Walk on their way to the new student convocation

By Mike Johansson

The lifeblood is once again pulsing through the RIT campus this week as students return for the new school year.

It’s like having spring in mid-August. The campus that has had only a few students and faculty through the summer has felt a little sleepy, even dormant.

The walkways were almost empty, the hallways hollow and the quads were there in all of their well-manicured glory for almost no one to enjoy. But that all changes this week as students return breathing life back into the bricks and stone.

From returning second years (who are now “old hands”) to juniors and seniors and graduate students the mass of humanity that makes up the student body at RIT comes streaming back onto campus.

By the end of this week finding a seat in one of the many campus cafeterias and cafes may be hard (students who have spent the summer apart have so much catching up to do) and the lines will be back at the coffee shops and snack stops.

Then there are the welcome-back rituals. The most-fun of which is Tiger Walk (this year at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20) which precedes the new student convocation in the Gordon Field House.

Faculty and staff don as much orange and brown as is humanly possible and gather up noisemakers and signs before assembling on the east side of the Field House. There they group in colleges and try to outdo each other with how loud they can be as the thousands of freshmen file by into convocation.

President Destler and Ritchie the mascot are always there high-fiving students as the RIT Pep Band tries to bring a semblance of musical order to the cacophony. It’s a great way to make new students feel welcome and help them see the liveliness that is RIT.

This is why it’s hard not to be excited by the new school year once students return. Like the robins that return each spring signifying new life and new beginnings so too does the return of students to the RIT campus.

Welcome back students … we’re delighted to have you back.