Learning What It Takes to Effectively Assist At-Risk Communities Facing Climate Hazards

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A coastal house is ruined after a natural disaster

As a coastal wetlands scientist and Stanford Impacts Lab (SIL) Design Fellow, my research focuses on improving access to natural hazard information for marginalized coastal communities.

Encouraged by the increased focus from the Biden-Harris administration on how climate change impacts vulnerable communities, I sat down with SIL’s Kate Green Tripp to discuss a project underway to improve peoples’ ability to assess risk and thus mitigate harm and reduce recovery times after disaster strikes. 

Federal attention on this issue is growing at a desperately needed time and in tandem with my own learning about how to better reach — and help — people most at risk of coastal hazards. 

You have described yourself as a scientist by training whose social-impact focus is informed by personal experience. Can you say more about that? 

My scientific expertise is based on my disciplinary training in ecohydrology, biogeochemistry, and remote sensing with a focus on coastal wetlands. In other words, I study changes in plants, water, and soil to understand how coastal wetlands function. My deep knowledge in these disciplines have made me comfortable with developing and pursuing questions orientated around climate change and coastal vegetation response. 

However, my scientific training has not prepared me to integrate a focus on how climate change impacts communities — coastal communities in particular. This is critical, because the project I am pursuing as an SIL Design Fellow is solely focused on assisting the most vulnerable communities in understanding how their risk of coastal natural hazards are being exacerbated by climate change. 

Not being able to fall back on my scientific training to address this problem, I have instead relied on my personal experience. 

I spent the first 18 years of my life living on the Gulf of Mexico in both New Orleans and Galveston, Texas. Both communities have a deep and tragic history with hurricanes, which has shaped my perception of vulnerability to natural hazards. My personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008 have been the foundation from which I am approaching this problem.

What problem, specifically, are you keen to tackle by way of the Stanford Impact Labs Design Fellowship (SILDF)?

The social problem I seek to address is that low-income communities in New Orleans suffer greater damages and undergo slower recovery following natural disasters. Part of the problem is that necessary information that could be used to mitigate and avoid risk may not be contextualized and delivered in a way that is conducive to uptake by community members who have the fewest resources. 

My theory of change is that if we codesign a live geographic information system (GIS) platform that provides context-specific emergency preparedness information, then marginalized community members will be able to better evaluate risk and make decisions based on their relative risk.

Is there anything you thought you understood well about this problem that you came to realize you don't yet understand — or may need to approach differently?

There are a couple of areas where I have had to think differently about the challenge I am seeking to address. First, I assumed that coastal cities would have a rather clear sense of which areas are the most vulnerable and what their needs are. However, I have come to realize that the city offices that are most likely to have this information are often understaffed and under-resourced. This makes it more difficult to assess which communities I would need to engage to ensure the platform fits their needs. 

Next, a platform approach is, of course, heavily reliant on technological and internet access. The platform will be designed to provide real-time information, which could be important to enable residents to make timely decisions. I knew that computer access might be more limited in under-resourced communities, but I didn’t consider that many people are likely to access the platform only through a phone. Thus, I learned this is something critical to keep in mind during the design phase. It was only through working with Emergency Legal Responders, our community partner based in New Orleans, that this need was pointed out to me.

You've talked about learning moments hitting you as "lightning bolts" (in a good way!) during your time as a design fellow. Can you share one or two of those moments?

I initially approached the development of this platform with an engineering mindset: I have a tool that can fix a problem. However, I now realize that I need to think more like someone developing a product for a market. I first need to do market analysis to ensure that my solution aligns with the needs of my target audience. I then need to identify the appropriate partners to work with me throughout the process. These partners may be the producers and initial testers, scalers that help me move from a test product to a market-ready one, and finally enablers that help with adoption. At each stage, I need to challenge my assumptions to ensure that we aren’t operating with blind spots. This feels like common sense in retrospect, but I was rather oblivious to this framework prior to this fellowship.

If you were to envision your work informing policy or action that could reach and help large numbers of people at scale, what might that look like?

The specific outcome that I am seeking to produce may not be scalable because the needs for each coastal community will vary from place to place. 

However, policy reform could come by way of ensuring that decision-making information is available and interpretable for people from a range of backgrounds. There has been a push to make environmental data more accessible to the public through platforms such as EJScreen by the EPA. This platform is a great leap forward in the democratization of environmental data, with a focus on marginalized communities, but it may not be the most interpretable for people unfamiliar with the datasets. My hope is that my platform — one designed to take communities into account — can serve as proof-of-concept for similar products.