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Virtual adaptation: An investigation into the potential of mobile and social media to support communities in adapting to climate change

Malcolm Fairbrother

Malcolm Fairbrother

15 November 2012

An investigation into the potential of social media and mobile apps to support climate change adaptation and resilience activities.

Chris Preist

Chris Preist

This project has recently won funding from the Cabot Institute's Open Call for 2012/2013.  The researchers are Chris Preist ( Computer Science), Malcolm Fairbrother and JD Dewsbury (Geographical Sciences).  Here they explain the idea around the project to investigate the potential of social media and mobile apps to support climate change adaptation and resilience activities.

Social media and mobile distributed applications are effective means of engaging individuals and communities for commercial, social and environmental ends.  Furthermore, apps over 2G phones such as iCow  (which provides tailored advice and reminders to cow farmers) make a real difference to the lives of rural people in developing countries. Academic research is exploring the role of different approaches to engaging communities with such applications and Bristol Interaction and Graphics group plays an international role in this.

Proposed approaches include engaging interface design, gamification, persuasive design and community norm engagement.  Engaging interface design motivates a participant by making the interaction enjoyable.  Gamification uses competition and virtual rewards (points, badges etc) to motivate.  Persuasive design attempts to craft technology to encourage desired behaviours and discourage undesired behaviours.  Community norm engagement uses social comparison approaches and awareness raising of best practice to encourage a sense of working together, and therefore engaging collectively rather than individually with a challenge. 

Malcolm Fairbrother

Malcolm Fairbrother

Chris Preist and others have just completed a study of motivating and enabling factors affecting the usage of  mobile apps by volunteers supporting an environmental energy reduction campaign (Close The Door), which has been submitted to CHI, the premier conference in this area. Chris has also won a £300k grant to conduct research applying these approaches to domestic retrofit.

There is no academic work exploring how effective such approaches are at engaging people with climate change adaptation and resilience challenges.  One challenge is land-use adaptation: Crops that are currently grown in a region may find that as the climate changes, it is too hot, wet or dry for their needs.  Farmers would need to spread and share best practice with regard to what crops to plant and how best to care for them.  Expertise could be provided to such farmers, both in developing and developed countries, through phone-base systems similar to iCow. A sense of community between farmers in an area, sharing information, could be encouraged through social media.

Another challenge is increased flooding.  In a developed country, ‘hotspots’ need to be identified from early warning signs such as regularly backed-up drains in times of heavy rainfall.  Local people need to learn that they are potentially under threat, what preparations need to be taken, and work together to get things ready if a flood alert is received. Community events are being used, in Bristol and elsewhere, to gently raise awareness in flood-risk areas.  Again, mobile apps and social media have a potential role to play here – for example, location-based flood preparation games could engage teenagers and others with smartphones in thinking about where flood waters would go, and what preparations would reduce their impact.  The performative use of social media and mobile devices are proving to be an excellent way for institutions and engaged communities to revitalize habituated perceptions of familiar environments, providing background knowledge for the evaluation of local place-based risk.

We propose to conduct an investigation into the potential of social media and mobile apps to support climate change adaptation and resilience activities.  The investigation will consist of the following:

  1. Review of adaptation challenges facing communities both in the UK and abroad. [This is likely to be a relatively quick 'review of existing reviews' rather than an exhaustive literature survey]
  2. Assessment of potential role of mobile apps and social media to support communities in facing such challenges.
  3. Assessment of applicability of alternative engagement approaches identified by the HCI community to such applications.

The assessment will also identify key interdisciplinary research questions to address in the future, specifically focusing on what digital techniques are most effective at engaging communities, and how this varies depending on the problem to be engaged with, and the situation of the community. The idea is to think as broadly as possible about the full range of existing social media and mobile distributed applications which might be extended in some way to serve the new goal of facilitating adaptation. This project would take the time to assess the possibilities, thereby generating new ideas for subsequent development.

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