Scholars’ ‘flash talks’ explore resilience, from health to media innovation

Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute, underscored the institute’s commitment to advancing the health, security, and sustainability of communities around the world. “We’re harnessing the research going on around the entire university and bringing it together to meet this imperative,” he said. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Peaceful countries are less likely to leap into conflict and experience violence,” said Denise Garcia, associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern. “They are better equipped to bounce back from shocks caused by economic conditions and natural disasters.”

It was Monday in the Alumni Center, and Garcia was giving a four-minute “flash talk” explaining why she is planning to work with electrical and computer engineering professor Taskin Padir to leverage the power of technology to promote positive peace.

For her, the time is now. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, violence cost the global economy $14.3 trillion in 2016. “Too much is spent on containing war,” said Garcia, whose research focuses on the global governance of security, “and the number of people impacted by armed conflict is higher than ever.”

Garcia was one of more than a dozen Northeastern faculty members, doctoral students, and visiting scholars who gave lighting-fast overviews of their community resilience research as part of a TED-style event hosted by the university’s Global Resilience Institute.

In his opening remarks, Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute, underscored the institute’s commitment to advancing the health, security, and sustainability of communities around the world. “We’re harnessing the research going on around the entire university and bringing it together to meet this imperative,” he said, noting that the institute is working with more than 50 faculty members in all nine of Northeastern’s colleges. “The university is going to be a leader in this.”

Local media and community resilience

The two-hour program focused on community resilience from a range of perspectives, from health to immigration to media innovation. John Wihbey, assistant professor in the School of Journalism, highlighted the empirical link between the strength of communities and the vibrancy of local news and then unpacked the trends that have threatened the existence of many of these small town papers and TV stations.

According to the American Society of News Editors 2015 newsroom census, he said, the workforce has decreased from approximately 57,000 in 1990 to 33,000 in 2015. “The number of people who are professionally employed to deliver quality information to communities has plummeted,” Wihbey explained, noting that he is writing a book on the future of news in a networked world. “The news industry is in crisis is this respect, largely because most of the ad dollars are going to Google and Facebook and are not being placed in local media.”

His recent survey of 70 newspaper owners in New York found that only half believe that their publications would remain in operation for 20 more years. From Wihbey’s perspective, that is a particularly bad sign for people living in small communities who depend on local news. “I asked the owners how much they believed their news outlet fosters community engagement in civil actions such as voting and town meetings, and about two-thirds said they’re driving this kind of engagement,” Wihbey explained. “While the national media markets are doing pretty well,” he added, “the local media markets are really hurting.”

Wihbey’s solution to improving the culture of networked communication in small cities and towns is pretty complex. He said it involves expanding internet access, “doubling down on media innovation hubs,” and harnessing the power of government to “facilitate citizen groups that want to perform communications functions.”

Environmental health in Puerto Rico

Phil Brown—University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences and director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute—summarized Northeastern’s ongoing work in Puerto Rico through two environmental health research centers. One—the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats Center—is known as PROTECT. The other—the Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development in Puerto Rico—is known as CRECE.

Puerto Rico is home to more than 200 hazardous waste sites and particularly high levels of air pollution. Its preterm birth rate is among the highest in the world, climbing from 12 percent in the 1990s to 17 percent today, while the region’s children suffer disproportionately from obesity, autism, and asthma. According to Brown, these factors contributed to Northeastern’s decision to choose Puerto Rico to study the effects of various sources of contamination on cohorts of women and children. “We work with individuals, community groups, health professionals, and municipal governments to aid in hazard identification and cleanup, help avoid toxic products, and strengthen environmental protection and governance,” he explained.

Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September, the PROTECT and CRECE centers have been collaborating with outside groups to ensure the safety and welfare of team members, study participants, and patients in all four of their community health centers. As part of their recovery efforts, they have donated mosquito repellent, food, flashlights, hand sanitizer, water filters, diapers, and other much-needed supplies to storm victims. “Our commitment to participants leads us to help in dealing with disaster,” Brown said.

‘We’re leaving digital traces of our lives behind every day’

Network science scholar David Lazer reflected on the social value of mobile data, using one of his studies from 2013 to illustrate its worth.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Lazer and his colleagues developed an Android app capable of identifying users’ most frequently contacted people in the hours following the attack. What they found, he said on Monday, is that most users were calling their moms to say that they were safe.

“We’re all leaving digital traces of our lives behind every day and these traces say something not just about our lives but about what’s happening systematically,” said Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science. “We can use these digital traces to understand how people use their social networks to mobilize their networks to help them in moments of need.”

Going forward, he said, “my hope is that we can use these kinds of tools to identify what kinds of things are happening in the environment and to understand how we might identify people who would otherwise fall through the cracks.”