Tapia to engage Schreyers Honors students in crisis informatics discussions

Andrea Tapia, an associate professor in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), seeks to develop information and communication technology solutions that promote better decision-making across all responders in disaster settings. Starting in the Fall 2013 semester, she will have the opportunity to engage students in the Schreyer Honors College in a deeper discussion than what is typically allowed in a classroom setting of how technologies can be used to save lives during a crisis.

“Crisis Informatics is, in part, about finding ways average citizens can use technologies at hand to help themselves, their neighbors and the official responders during an emergency.”

Tapia was selected as a Distinguished Honors Faculty (DHF) Fellow by the Schreyer Honors College for the period 2013-2015. Her application focused on further engagement and development of the College of IST’s Crisis Informatics program. Crisis informatics takes an interdisciplinary perspective on the socio-technical, informational and collaborative aspects of developing and using technologies and information systems in the context of the full disaster lifecycle—preparation, warning, impact, response, recovery, and mitigation phases. Tapia is the first IST faculty member to be awarded with a DHF Fellowship.

The Schreyer Honors College's Distinguished Honors Faculty Program brings select faculty together with Schreyer Scholars in innovative, interactive programs that extend learning beyond classroom walls. Over dinner table conversations, during field trips, and in small-group discussions on timely topics, Distinguished Honors Faculty and students share experiences and perspectives that may venture beyond the labels and definition of an academic major or course. Faculty members submit proposals outlining programs to be offered should they be selected for the program. Typically, faculty members are selected to participate in the program for two consecutive academic years.

“There is something valuable and special about having closer relationships between honors students and professors,” Tapia said.

Tapia, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of New Mexico, is an academic with expertise in social research methods and social theory, applying those to the study of information and communication technologies (ICT) and their context of development, implementation and use.
Her work has been funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, the United Nations, and Penn State's Schreyer Honors College.

Tapia’s DHF Fellowship will span over four semesters—Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, and Spring 2015. Twice a semester, she will take six to twelve honors students from various colleges to eat a meal together in downtown State College, Pa., and engage in discussions concerning topics related to disaster and emergency response and information technologies. The discussions will focus on how information and communication technologies have played a role in saving lives—specifically in the areas of technologies used towards emergency response and disaster response.

During the discussions, Tapia said, she will relate the topics to current events such as the Boston Marathon bombing. In the aftermath of the bombing, citizen bystanders used social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to update friends and followers on the events, look up friends to see if they were okay, and organize volunteer efforts. Tapia will pose questions to the students such as, “In a time of crisis, what role does technology play?” and “What (technology) could we design that would aid emergency response analysts to make use of citizen-produced data and citizen analysts?”

In addition to the meal discussions, the DHF program will include one mini-capstone a semester, during which Tapia will take six to twelve honors students from various colleges (not necessarily the same students as the meals) to either visit a crisis response organization in a city near State College, or will involve the students in a larger event related to crisis informatics in State College. There will also be two planned trips during which Tapia will drive a 15-passenger van to New York City to visit the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), and to Washington, D.C. to visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). During those visits, students will meet the staff and possibly engage with them in a simulation or exercise.

The second component of the mini-capstone includes two planned local events. In the Fall 2013 semester, Penn State and the Centre Region Council of Governments will conduct an exercise of the combined Emergency Operations Center. The exercise will bring together representatives from both the University and local government to work through a series of tasks designed to test the abilities of the responders and the functionality of the facility in a combined, operational environment. Honors students will be able to observe the exercise and participate if they wish.

The other local event is ISCRAM 2014: 11th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management, which will be held May 17-22, 2014, at the University Park campus. Tapia is the conference chair. The theme for ICSCRAM2014 is empowering citizens and communities through information systems for crisis response and management. Tapia says she expects 300 international participants at the conference. Honors students will be able to play a substantial role in the conference if they wish.

The DHF program, Tapia said, will be an excellent opportunity to build bridges between the College of IST and the Schreyer Honors College. A lot of people don’t have a clear understanding of the mission and programs of the college, she said, and crisis informatics is a growing field with broad interest from across various disciplines.

“Crisis Informatics is bigger than just the College of IST,” Tapia said. “Students from Health, Communications, Geography, International Affairs, and Geosciences are probably interested, too. The DHF program is a great way to gather diverse, talented, interested students around an IST-hosted table.”

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Last Updated January 10, 2014