Storytellers with face coverings

Tony Arkani, a sprightly junior has the gift of biting repartee that cuts through a slab of high school cynicism. Tony, by the way, isn’t his real name. (I mistakenly called him that on the first day of class; he didn’t mind.) His other essential ingredient is a self-deprecating humor which comes handy when he weighs in on issues where he expects push-back: racism, face masks, privacy. Each morning Tony sits propped up against my classroom wall waiting for me to open the door. It’s barely 6:30 am. He’s on a roll. His gangly feet protrude into the hallway, but its his acerbic comments lobbed at barely woken-up teenagers that stop them in their tracks. A few set down their overstuffed backpacks to join the conversation.

Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

This linguistic flamethrower is just one of the students who signed up for my elective class on Writing and Publishing this year. Other high schools have classes in Tech Writing, or Fiction. The broad scope of W&P resonated with students like Tony, and his classmate in whose veins run bits of Chaucer and Comedy Central, and even New Girl. The work of Atul Gawande, an endocrine surgeon-writer, and Kacey Musgraves, songwriter, resonate with them.

I once told this class I wish I had had such imaginative minds to work with back in the day when I worked in advertising, hunting for creativity. Fast forward thirty years, these are born story-tellers who take to plot and story arcs as effortlessly as they deconstruct memes and imbibe TikToks. It gives me a reason to wake up each morning, knowing there’ll be a fresh batch of creativity to be put in the blender.

To put a time stamp on this, it was a class that began in the middle of COVID when school superintendents were trying to balance students’ well being and academic achievement. Would a return to in-person school trigger a longer shut down? No one has the perfect recipe. But one thing I do know is that these storytellers with face coverings soon proved to us that our kids, despite six feet of separation and rigorous sanitization, were bursting with energy — something I wrote about earlier.

Given this kind of raw material we just might we see a new batch of thought leaders, creative policymakers, poets, screenwriters, scientists, and entrepreneurs. From my perspective at least, they have already shown their hand. One student has a podcast and a YouTube channel. Another, who works part-time at Taco Bell, is working on a George Lucas-ish manuscript — a series of 15 books, with prequels. Seriously! Tony also has a one in the works, too, involving ‘islands’ populated by ‘Orixens,’ ‘Fades,’ and creatures called ‘Voidwalkers.’ They remind me of characters in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. A year ago during the height of school lockdowns he pitched the idea of starting a mythical country he calls New Arkansas. He’s now recruiting ‘citizens’, has written up an elaborate constitution, designed a court of arms, and for an assignment in this class, created a podcast about it. Here, take a listen:

As they wrapped up their final assignment, I heard Tony mumble, “I wish I could retake this elective next year!” To which I responded, “You’d be bored.” I lied. These students who spar with him in the hallways seem to have exorcized the boredom gene that drops in on teenagers.

We shouldn’t let these storytellers out without tapping into these inner dynamos. If we fail them, we risk sacrificing them as underpaid drones in some Amazon-like warehouse. We desperately need the next C.S. Lewis, Erik Larson, and George Orwell.

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Ignoring the warnings while believing in conspiracies

Why is it so easy for people –governments, even– to believe in conspiracy theories, but ignore science? We will have to figure this one out as we deal with Covid-19.

As recently as 2018, Jonathan Quick in the Guardian wrote a detailed explanation of how we must prepare for a ‘looming pandemic,’ so I’m aghast how governments –meaning people in decision-making roles in governments, ignored this.  Here’s an enlightening paragraph, with eerie predictions at that time.

“Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey or pig, preparing to jump to a human being. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of such a threat, for it has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

Some would have dismissed these and other Cassandra-like statements as overblown. The prediction at that time was that a mismanaged pandemic could cost the world 3.5 trillion dollars.

Jonathan Quick (of Harvard Medical School, and Chair of the Global Health Council) used this infographic that puts outbreaks and a pandemic in context. I urge you to read his article, though.

If only our leaders listen to experts rather than attempt to be the experts and geniuses themselves. We didn’t elect them to spread unfounded theories, but to lead.


Using blogging, tweeting, GIS maps to monitor health emergency

What a week for social media!

I’ve been doing a lot of data-gathering on the swine flu since we were alerted to the outbreak last Friday. We are a visualization center and decision-lab that happened to hold pandemic flu exercises, so while we are not public health experts, we know a thing or two about emergency planning.

Apart from talking to the media, managing new media efforts and outreach, my work involves being the eyes and ears of the Decision Theater.

A few years ago this would have taken an enormous amount or work. Today, time-crunch notwithstanding, being plugged into social media has made it easier to stay on top of things. It’s all about being connected to the sources and monitoring the monitors.

Is it live, or is it ‘public?’ Sometimes when I brief the media on a story, what I assume to be public knowledge, is not. When the WHO raises a threat level, when a state epidemiologist confirms a new case, when the governor releases a new document or the state health officials hold a web conference … all these go public as they hit the wires. But unless we have an effective monitoring mechanism, or have hired a media monitoring agency, critical data can get buried in the clutter –and chatter. I subscribe to some news services via SMS, and of course follow a few organizations, on my phone via Twitter. I can now ping a reporter using the Twitter with direct message to confirm something.

Direct from the source. I know, all this tweeting, re-tweeting, Facebooking and blog angst (some of which I have referred to) is precisely what adds to that chatter. But rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, I think that we are better off with more information, if we know how to use it well. Many who have good data are now not limited to squeezing it through the old pipes (cable) and intermediaries (wire services). They do issue press releases, but they also give us a direct feed.  And we are better off for that.

Here are a handful that do a good job of it. An expanded list is on our Decision Theater Blog, Lightbulb Moments.

The latter is worth elaborating on. HealthMap is an interesting project. The two people behind it  (John S. Brownstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Clark Freifeld, a software engineer) grab several feeds and lay them out to help us make sense of all that data.

TMI? We can deselect categories in HealthMap if we so wish. In an emergency, few seem to complain about too much information. If at all, there would be an uproar had any organization  inadvertently held back some information.

Too many swine flu experts hyping it up?

I have seen a flurry of responses to the outbreak of swine flu over the past few days, and have to wonder if our ability to monitor and repeat information often overstates the situation /crisis. Or exploit it.

I can say this with some confidence since:

(a) I work at a the Decision Theater, where we have conducted three pandemic flu exercises –the last of which was in February this year.

(b) We have to caution many people who ask, because everyone’s in reactive mode, not realizing that this is still an outbreak, not an epidemic, and still far from being declared a pandemic.

I suppose we could hype up the situation, and claim to be ‘experts’ in the field, just to get media attention. But we won’t go there. It is not in the public interest to add to the uncertainty.

Down-playing. Sort of. If at all, I have had to tell media who call that guess what, Arizona was recently ranked the most prepared state as far as pandemic plans. I also sat in a meeting where one researcher in this field noted that Mexico has some of the most advanced epidemiologists, and that their health care monitoring system was not to be doubted.

I have seen communicators jump into this space. Some in a good way. But as Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute noted, “too many Twitter conversations about swine flu seem to be motivated by desires to fit in, do what one’s friends do (i.e. tweet about it) or simply gain more popularity.”

Here’s a short list of how some in the industry reacted:

  • On Sunday, while I was monitoring the information on the outbreak (at 10 pm Mountain Time), Gerard Baud pinged me about how his outfit is looking at the crisis, with a short podcast. Unfortunately it was an ad for a tele-seminar that you would have to pay for. I would have preferred if the response, in the public interest, was a free ‘seat’ at the teleconference for at least one person in the organization.
  • Melcrum today published a short but intelligent piece in the Melcrum Hub about an effective crisis communications plan. One of the points they raised seemed so pertinent to the present situation: Stick to the known facts. It’s so easy to go on anecdotal evidence –as in stuff you saw online, repeated by someone who thought she had heard it from a ‘source.’
  • Ragan Communications also published a good piece on it but unfortunately they too have connencted it to a webinar that will cost you $99.
  • Happy to note that IABC is making a teleseminar available free. Details here.

Bottom Line. I know times are tough. But people are also getting sick. There are lots of cities, school districts and healthcare systems who have plans but will like to see what else they could do. I don’t think at this time they should pay for learning about better communications to help their local community and their country.

Hey, that’s just me.

Pandemic flu hits blogosphere

I’ve been tracking how the pandemic flu is being covered over the past few months, and notice a spike in interest across many cities, scary media stories, a military-styled exercise. The blogosphere has suddenly become engaged in this.

Blogging a pandemic I. SDHD PanFlu BlogEx, a blog by the Southeastern District Health Department in Pocatello, Idaho is nothing to sneeze at. It is using a blog format to ‘report’ an outbreak within a two-week period using news-like headlines, fact-filled blog posts, videos and and links to external agencies. I like the fact that comments are open to the public. Every carries this disclaimer in red: “This is an exercise. It is not real.”

Unlike most What-If exercises (considered table-top exercises by the Dept. of Homeland Security) a global event like this cannot be contained by governments and medical professionals. There is a huge public component, not to mention a media component. Information will spread fast through whatever channels are available and it is not a stretch to assume that the blogosphere will upstage the traditional media in the same way it did during recent crises, such as the London bombings and the Asian tsunami. People will upload videos from their phones. Paramedics will provide advice via home made videos published on Youtube. Citizen journalists will break stories from far flung places before Newsweek or Catie Couric even get there –if flights to affected areas will even be possible. This format with potential for greater collaboration and dissemination is truly worth exploring.

Blogging a pandemic II: One Michael Coston, a paramedic, maintains a blog called Avian-Flu diary. He’s onto something, being a sort of a paramedic-meets CitJo.

On similar lines, the Kaiser Network is hosting a web conference called “The Health Blogosphere: What It Means for Policy Debates and Journalism” today at 1 p.m. Eastern time.

ASU fired the first shot? I like to think we had a head start on some of these. Our ‘hybrid’ Pandemic Flu exercise at ASU’s Decision Theater in April this year took the table-top model in a new direction, using the collaboration tools of the Theater with rich media inputs, and scenarios.