• Graduation Project – An interactive map of stories

    Posted on January 18, 2012 by in Uncategorized


    I started my graduation process in early fall 2011. The first step was to present my advisor with a five-page document outlining my proposal. I’m from El Salvador, and since I’d applied for the Digital Media master program at Georgia Tech, I knew that I wanted to build something that would help my own region of the world. Ideally, a device that could foster development not only for my country but for the whole Centralamerican region.

    Therefore, my first attempt was to work on a rural community memorial. Based on my experience with the Liberia Virtual War Memorial (LVWM), and general knowledge about the MOSES project (which I’ll talk about on a future post), this system was intended to memorialize daily experiences in rural communities in Central America to help community members find solutions to their own issues.

    Both the LVWM and MOSES are projects led by a professor from the CS department. Upon hearing about my project, He pointed out that Memorials are storytelling devises that deal with symbolic events from the past. People in rural communities could certainly tell stories of events already in the past, but not necessary symbolic. My Advisor, a professor from the department of Literature Communications and Culture, pointed out I would have to provide some initial content for the device, which would imply going to Central America to get it. That was a major challenge considering I couldn’t count on founds for this project as a master student.

    Since I’d spent the summer in my country for an internship, I’d thought I could get a wealth of media from my NGO contacts there. The idea was to build my thesis project on top of those assets. However, due to different circumstances, I ended up back to Atlanta for the fall semester with almost no media. Thus, I chose a different approach: I’d build a project to address a social issue in the United States with hopes to translate it later on to the reality of my own region. I decided to keep my original proposal, without the word “memorial”, and work on Disaster Risk Reduction through Digital Storytelling.

    What is it about?

    Half of the fall semester was devoted to background research. I knew my clay would be stories, but I still had to define what would be my project about. Yes, I was going to work on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), but I had to be more specific now.

    My first thought was to make my project about stories of people who had faced different kinds of “natural disasters” (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and such are referred to as hazards in DRR) and build digital system for it. My advisor recommended me to be as specific as possible. Different hazardous situations could dissolve people’s attention, or present too diverse contexts to work with. Kathrina seemed attractive as a case of study, but Irene was more recent. Indeed, recency meant also data was available faster: it was considerably easier to to find stories about Irene’s survivors than Kathrina’s. In consequence, I chose the most recent one.


    The next step was to find out the information I would use. Where could I find stories? Twitter and Facebook came to my mind, but a classmate warned me the Facebook API was suffering changes at that moment, and there was no guarantee I’d have access to the walls of people outside my contact list. Twitter didn’t seem to be promising either given its API didn’t allow to search on twits longer than 30 days. I thought on working with FEMA’s on-line information, but that was mostly statistics.

    I decided to solve this issue by looking for blogs. Specifically, I looked for blogs with stories of people who had experienced hurricane Irene. After a very long searching, I finally build a 50-blog-database.

    Objectives and Design Principles

    I knew what I wanted to work on and I had the required information. Now, the question was what to do with it. My advisor asked me to establish my goals and design principles.

    As I started thinking about both, I commented my project to a classmate who didn’t see any reason why anybody would use a system with personal stories about disasters. If the whole point was to prevent or at least reduce the possibility of a new disasters, what people needed most was information. She literally said: “I’d better go to a website with information about what to do on that particular situation.”

    I realized her claim contradicted what I’ve found from the stories on my database: the people who decided to stay on risky zones during the hurricane were aware of the evacuation orders, but ignored them for different reasons. Some others stated they knew about the hurricane, but specified they didn’t care to find more information on what to do about it for varied reasons.

    Even if some people are likely to look for the relevant information to handle a hazardous event, they usually do it when the risk is near. This proves ineffective when preventive measures have to be taken with advance. For instance, one of the main causes of the Kathrina disaster was not the storm itself, but the decision of the government not to reinforce the barriers of the town even when they were deteriorating. If people had known this in advance, they could have put pressure on their authorities to ensure the right precautions were taken. Such a civic action for accountability couldn’t have been taken right before the hurricane hit the city.

    Another example of long term actions relates to the fear to looting. People who stays in zones of danger do so to prevent being looted in the aftermath of the hurricane. They can know they are endangered, but they still will opt for it if they think there are possible benefits from that decision. How do we avoid to have people afraid of looting? One the one hand, devising strategies to protect evacuated settlements; on the other hand, building awareness about the benefits of evacuation even if the refugees become victims of looting. For the latter, information alone won’t do. It requires a communication strategy that touches the emotional nature of individuals. And one of the ways to do it is through storytelling.

    This reflections helped me to realize why I wanted to work with stories, and how I wanted to do that. Thus, I realized my design goal was to leverage storytelling to motivate people to think what to do about disasters now, instead of thinking about it until they are about to happen.

    To enable this goal, I chose reenactment as my main design principle. By this I mean the capacity of the interactors of my system to support, add, or challenge the stories at hand. My advisor suggested a thread discussion board such as the one available in Electronic Book Review to embody this principle.

    Additionally, my design will be guided by the principle of transparency. I want the users to realize what the system is about, and how to use it without external input with a short learning curve, and a usage-flow that creates agency.

    Iteration 1 – First Wireframes

    The main challenge over the whole semester was to come up with a short description of the project, and make that visible through a wireframe. These were my very first attempts:

    First Wireframe 01

    My first Wire Frames included a welcome screen with the name of the project and an “enter” button. I didn’t consider adding a project description at this time.

    First Wireframe 03

    The tagcloud had terms linked to DRR, browsing categories, and searching options.

    First Wireframe 03

    By clicking on a tag, the user could find out how many entries held that particular tag, how many comments had been made under stories with this tag, and how many versions of the same story had been published (a feature I called re-tell).

    First Wireframe 04

    The system also allowed searches based on different metadata from the entires: author, entry title, re-tell number, or by capacities.

    First Wireframe 05

    In this example, the user has reached a particular story browsing by authors.

    First Wireframe 06

    The stories could be commented, re-told in a different version through the “re-tell” feature, and tagged. Each tag was considered a capacity. (In DRR, a capacity is a skill, characteristic or knowledge that helps people prevent, reduce, or overcome hazardous situations.)

    Thanks to feedback from my committee members and fellow classmates, I realized there were several flaws in this proposal:

    1. Tag clouds are meaningless. The fail to convey the user into thinking about capacities.
    2. The selected tags were confusing for most of the people. I knew what they were due to my previous experience in DRR. If I planned to reach non-experts, I’d have to rethink the terminology.
    3. The “add capacity” feature as a mean to create tags was also obtrusive. Most people wondered what I meant by that term.
    4. I had included an “Inadmissible!” message on an alert box in case they inserted the term “natural disaster” on the search box. Despite all the solid arguments I can provide to support my claim, punishing the user is all the opposite to agency creation.

    In sum, my first draft started an enriching discussion, and urgently prompted me to iterate on my design. I’ll talk about my following iterations on my next post.

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