UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the College of Information Sciences and Technology, doctoral student Jeongwon Jo has benefited from having access to an interdisciplinary network of experts and scholars to help advance her research. In part because of those collaborations and mentors, Jo and her co-authors earned the Best Paper Award at the Communications and Technologies 2021 conference for “COVID Kindness: Patterns of Neighborly Cooperation during a Global Pandemic” — the first paper she’s published since she began her doctoral program at Penn State.
Networking and collaboration lead to best paper award for IST doctoral student
“This award raises awareness that researchers at Penn State and IST are conducting valuable studies relevant to crisis informatics, which is the research domain to investigate how people use information communication technologies to prepare for or respond to disasters,” said Jo. “I am a member of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction, so the award also shows that the center tries to understand the use of ICTs during a crisis in a humanistic approach with social science computing perspectives.”
Jo’s project investigated novel adaptations made by citizens to support their local communities during the initial phase of COVID-19 from March to July 2020, when physical distancing measures were first enforced. The researchers explored civic initiatives for immediate disaster relief in multiple local communities across the U.S.
“Because this pandemic was unprecedented for this generation, governments were not ready to sufficiently satisfy surging needs, especially at the initial phase of COVID-19,” Jo said. “In past disasters, citizens were known to provide support before official disaster management arrived, but COVID-19 is not like hurricanes or earthquakes. Physical distancing measures were enforced because of the virus, and it first seemed like the pandemic completely undermined human connection.”
In the work, the researchers explored 158 civic disaster relief activities and interviewed 21 organizers and attendees. They found not only that citizens came together to help their neighbors, but that they also came up with innovative ways to provide support to mitigate risks of virus transmission. The team reviewed news articles, social media posts and email listservs that discussed creative, self-organized, disaster relief activities.
According to Jo, the research overcomes issues of abstraction and generalizability in case study research. The team generalized insights and findings from distinct empirical case studies by developing two standard solution schemas for effectively coping with immediate problems at the early stage of a pandemic: surging social needs and the fragmentation of community. After discovering commonalities across multiple civic initiatives, the team developed guidelines for civic pandemic relief, which could help citizens respond more quickly and effectively in the case of a future pandemic.
“There could be another wave of COVID-19, and another epidemic could occur again at any time,” she said. “We thought recording how citizens made adaptations to disaster relief activities amidst the pandemic would be a valuable asset to guide people on how to help their local members in the future.”
Building a network
A South Korean native, Jo came to the U.S. to pursue her doctorate in hopes of collaborating and building a network with the well-known worldwide scholars who study at institutions across the country.
“When graduate students can share their ideas and thoughts freely with experts, I think that is a primary key for impactful work to prosper,” she said.
She specifically chose to enroll at Penn State and in the College of IST because of her now-adviser Jack Carroll, distinguished professor of information sciences and technology.
“Jack is legendary in HCI, and is very interdisciplinary,” said Jo. “His background is extensive, ranging from mathematics and linguistics to psychology, human-computer interaction and community informatics. He always amazes me by suggesting theories from totally different fields that are applicable to my research, which can make my projects more valuable and creative.”
Carroll’s mentorship, along with Jo’s ability to interact with faculty from diverse areas such as HCI, cybersecurity, health and crisis informatics, data mining and conversational agents, has led her to become interested in user experience research, she said.
“I am particularly interested in mobilizing social capital through human connections in local communities when crises occur through ICTs to make our society a better place,” she said. “My overall goal would be to distribute digital technologies for disaster relief to a broader range of people, lessening any troublesome behaviors and augmenting social support.”
A goal that she feels she will likely reach, thanks to support she’s gained at the College of IST.
“At IST, I’ve learned that it is your loss to hesitate to reach out to other scholars or students,” she said. “They’ve all been on a rocky road and can give you tips on strategically overcoming struggles and helping you find your path to success.”
Carroll, along with Tiffany Knearem, doctoral student, and Chun-Hua Tsai, assistant research professor, served as co-authors on Jo’s paper. The paper was one of five from Carroll’s lab to be accepted to the 2021 Communities and Technologies conference.
The biennial conference is the premier international forum for stimulating scholarly debate and disseminating research on the complex connections between communities — in their multiple forms — and information and communication technologies.