Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why I am not a Charlie


In the aftermath of the shooting of the staff of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, we are all encouraged by popular sentiment to adopt the phrase "I am Charlie." Unfortunately, in traditional English usage, "I am a [right] Charlie" means "I have done something stupid or thoughtless." Hence, one translates "Je suis Charlie" at one's peril.

No reasonable-minded person could condone the terrible acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, or elsewhere. My main reaction is sadness and sympathy for the victims and the bereaved. What  am concerned with here is the popular reaction to the Parisian atrocities, and this is something that worries me.

I was living in America on 11th September 2001, and the events in New York directly involved some of my students, who were part of the response, and left one of my colleagues mourning a brother who was on one of the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center. I witnessed an immediate change in the social climate of the United States. Overnight and at the following weekend, I struggled to reinvent myself as an expert on terrorism, or at least someone who could say something intelligent and authoritative about it.

The power of mass communication is extraordinary. When it succeeds in coalescing popular sentiment, the results are mind-boggling. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died on 31 August 1997, the writer Ian Jack described the response as "grief police". We all had to grieve—visibly—or face massive public opprobrium. In the aftermath of "nine-eleven", the prevailing slogan was "either you're with us or you're against us." Vigorously, public figures vied to out-patriot each other and out-condemn the vile acts of that fateful day. American patriotism has succeeded in creating a country of extraordinary diversity in which there is remarkably little dissent from the basic principles that launched the nation. This is an amazing achievement, but there are times when the patriotism is taken to ludicrous lengths. I have never been one for putting my hand on my digestive system every time the national anthem is played.

The net effect of "either you're with us or you're against us" was to stifle debate about the motivations behind the terrorist outrages. Publicly to question US foreign policy or actions abroad became physically dangerous, and graphic demonstrations of that danger occurred in my local area. Anyone who was not visibly orthodox ran the risk of becoming the target of militarised, gun-toting thugs who were acting "in the name of patriotism" to police the nation's thoughts and attitudes. At a local town meeting, a Mexican citizen stood up and said, with great courage, that he felt threatened by the American flag. It was a relatively mild admission, but foolhardy nonetheless. For those of us who had grave doubts about US foreign policy, and also some sense of the injustices of Middle Eastern history, it felt as if we were re-experiencing Germany in the 1930s.

Clearly, the hostage-takings and killings in Paris January 2015 have had a deep effect on the French nation's psyche. People feel justifiably outraged and vulnerable to further attacks. As a form of resistance, there has been a surge of support for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It follows a long tradition of political and social mockery. In the dramas of Athens in the fifth-century BC, satyrs, beings that combined elements of man and goat, mocked the heroic events of the past. The plays were lewd and subversive, and thus was born satire. I read English and Italian satirical magazines and I appreciate the ability of satire to illuminate problems in creative and refreshing ways. I rather think the insistent mocking of Mohammed is now in rather bad taste. I also suspect that there are many instances in which modern satire applies double standards : for example, it is rare to see Jews mocked to the extent that Muslims are.

The effect of the Charlie Hebdo affair on Italy is surprising—or perhaps not. Judging by the nightly round of chat shows and televised debates, the country has been shocked almost to the same extent as France has been. Suddenly, Italy seems to have woken up to the realisation that we are all at risk of terrorist outrages, and the main reaction seems to be smarrimento—bewilderment. "Experts" on international affairs and counter terrorism have been dragged in front of the cameras, and have generally acquitted themselves atrociously. Women in hejab have been strategically placed in studio audiences, microphones have been thrust in the faces of inarticulate Muslim street traders in the big Italian cities; the right-wing Northern League has worked night and day to blame it all on immigration (something that required the ingenious application of tortuous logic). Not infrequently, television debates have degenerated into shouting matches, in which the "winner" is the person who manages to bluster loudest and ignore all the other participants.

Charlie Hebdo has intensified the dialogue of the deaf. Events such as this seem to deal a death-blow to the ability to listen to other people's points of view, consider them seriously and reason in a measured way. Many commentators have striven to increase the level of public angst, to make television viewers feel unsafe. Well they might: there is money to be made in the security industry and the way to make it is to ensure that everyone feels unsafe. In supporting Charlie Hebdo, we are supposed to be defending liberal, democratic values of free speech. In this respect, it is a well-known fact that free speech has its limits before it becomes slander and libel. Moreover, free speech is often inconvenient. Marco Travaglio, a highly respectable Italian journalist, went in front of the cameras and, in the Chomskian tradition of giving people chapter and verse, reeled off a long, copious history of occasions on which the Italian Government has censored RAI (the state television channels), often on the grounds that a programme which attempted to probe some wrong-doing was "in bad taste". Travaglio clearly does not suffer from quite the level of selective memory that is so prevalent among others who speak to the television cameras.

The conclusion from all the hubris is that we live in a world of forced consensus. Ordinary citizens, public officials or elected representatives are quite capable of becoming aggressive, to greater or lesser degrees, when faced with apostates who fail to accept what the public regard as a kosher attitude (forgive my archness in mixing religious metaphors!).

I find it unnerving to live in a place in which the debate on terrorism is so immature. It is true that the phenomenon is hard to explain: in a very respectable introduction to terrorism, issued by no less a publisher than Oxford University Press, the learned author seems to struggle to explain why terrorism exists. The fact is that we, the vast majority of people,  who find it utterly abhorrent (and counter-productive, which it most definitely is), do not have the cultural referents to imagine ourselves as terrorists and hence cannot empathise with those who are. A mature debate would see terrorism as a very serious problem, but one that should not be allowed to overshadow other serious threats, including 'natural' disasters and climate change. A mature debate would pay much attention to the roots of conflict in the Middle East, and the role of European countries in fomenting it. Instead we in Europe live in a land of historical amnesia, but the peoples of the Middle East have much longer memories, and that helps explain why they are so often scathing about our pronouncements on terrorism and free speech.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Medice, cura te ipsum


On 23rd November 1980 a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred in southern Italy. It caused 3,006 deaths and 8,841 injuries and damaged 400,000 houses in 630 municipalities. I was one of the survivors left homeless by this event. Almost exactly 34 years later, on 22rd November 2014, I was in Japan when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred near where I was staying. It destroyed 37 houses and injured 57 people. Some 22 people were trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, but all of them were rescued alive. The physical parameters of the two events were remarkably similar, but the states of vulnerability were very different.

I spent December 2014 in central Italy. In mid-month, an earthquake swarm began. At 10:36 a.m. one day, my house rocked and swayed in a rippling motion that was the most precise earth tremor I have ever felt. Well it might have been: the epicentre was almost exactly 10 km away, on a bend in the road that connects two villages, both of which are in the same municipality as my house. This magnitude 4.1 event briefly cut electricity supplies, and it certainly caused a great deal of fear and alarm locally. Schools and offices were immediately closed and many people took to the streets.

This may well have been the first occasion in a millennium in which the area of Tuscany that contains my home was affected by a locally generated earthquake swarm, albeit not one of very high power. We experienced up to 100 earthquakes a day. Although low power events are not in themselves particularly dangerous, they remind one that a swarm could contain at least on event of significantly higher magnitude, as has been the case in many earthquake sequences in peninsular Italy; for example, at L'Aquila in 1703 and 2009, and Ferrara in 1570-4. This causes a very uncomfortable feeling of being exposed to danger. After 34 years the old, familiar sensation of acute sensitivity to vibrations suddenly returned.

My first act was to consult the catalogue of past earthquakes. The map of seismicity is based on the record of previous events, which is, of course, more and more vague the further one goes back in time. On expert suggested to me that to construct a realistic picture of the magnitudes and frequencies one might need a catalogue of 50,000 past events, and this assumes that there is no significant temporal trend in the data. Hence, the record is incomplete and the map is a hypothesis. It suggests that I live in a broad area of medium seismicity, with a local "trough" of lower hazard in the immediate area of the town in which I live.

One item of concern is that the tower of a local church, built in AD 880, leans fairly precipitously (over an occupied house) as a result of an earthquake in 1895. The epicentre for this was 25 km away. As areas of much higher seismicity exist in the Mugello, Garfagnana and Casentino, parts of the Apennine mountains, this begs the question as to what effect seismicity of distant origin would have on local structures such as my house. My home, incidentally, was built in 1909 in unreinforced masonry. It has been strengthened (at my expense), but to make it fully anti-seismic would cost something like 30 per cent of the value of the whole building, a fairly enormous sum.

The catalogue includes a magnitude 5.6 event with epicentre so close that I can walk out of my front door, cross the adjacent park, and look down on it in the valley nearby. This may be the millennial event in the area and details of its effects are sketchy, as it occurred in 1812, before the advent of systematic records of earthquakes. From what is known I deduce, as a rule of thumb, that the risk of significant earthquake damage to my house is about 0.4 per cent per lifetime. The risk of catastrophic damage is too low to be estimated.

I have a family disaster plan, and the local civil protection service has a plan that designates muster areas and prescribes organised assistance in the event of a serious earthquake. In December 2014 information leaflets were widely distributed. Whether this is sufficient is difficult to assess. As a scholar of disasters, I am aware of the need to set a good example, and disseminate information that is comprehensible and valid to those local people who ask me about the situation. However, there are few very useful guidelines about how to prepare for earthquakes in areas of relatively low risk, in which the benefits of expensive or restrictive measures are highly debatable. One can, at least, monitor the progress of seismic events and try to determine whether there is anything in the pattern that would stimulate one to be more active in preparedness. As I write, the swarm continues intermittently with events whose magnitude is lower than 2.5, most of which are imperceptible. May this be the worst we have to deal with!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

HFA2 - Does it Matter?


A decade ago, Dr Alan Kirschenbaum published a book (Kirschenbaum 2004a), in which he put forward the audacious hypothesis that the relationship between, on the one hand, the number and impact of disasters, and, on the other, the founding and promotion of disaster risk reduction* organisations is the opposite of what we usually believe. He argued that the increase in disasters is largely illusory and the result of the need for the organisations to justify their own existence by aggrandising the problem.  He also published a paper that provided a theoretical basis for this hypothesis (Kirschenbaum 2004b). It is not exactly that the organisations cause the disasters, but they make them seem more serious than they are. More than ten years later, I am writing this in the aftermath of shootings and hostage-takings in France, which have been discussed in the mass media as if they are the first sign of the end of civilisation as we know it. The fact is that mass murder by shooting is a common problem in some countries, particularly in the Americas. In the ensuing debate, it is very evident that commentators see the events in France as an opportunity to frighten the general public and advance the position of people who are involved in counter-terrorism. In writing this, I am not endeavouring to minimise the risks associated with modern terrorism, but I am concerned about the attitudes to terrorism prevention, many of which are clearly self-serving and perhaps of dubious effectiveness.

Similar problems exist with other forms of disaster: natural, technological and social. Few attempts have been made to evaluate the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures (Alexander 2011), and even fewer of these have been impartial and independent. In disaster risk reduction generally, the tendency is not to evaluate the effectiveness of organisations, to do so under the starting assumption that the organisations are necessary, or employ self-evaluation. This the OECD's assessment of Italian Civil Protection was conducted largely through self-evaluation (OECD 2010). The results of this are predictably laudatory. Of course, they may be right, but in evaluating, not merely performance, but also the basic need for organisations, much depends on the degree of objectivity and, crucially, the criteria set for evaluation. It is easy to fall into the trap of allowing the latter to be self-fulfilling.

Disaster risk reduction keeps people in employment, including the undersigned. I often wonder about my own effectiveness, but recently I have had doubts about the value of the Hyogo Framework for Action renewal process (UNISDR 2005, et seq.).

Let there be no doubt that the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, set up after the Decade for Disaster Reduction (1990-2000), is a vital organisation that does some essential and irreplaceable work, particularly in encouraging initiatives and disseminating information. The Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015 was launched in Kobe, in the Japanese Prefecture of Hyogo, in the wake of the 1995 earthquake, which at the time was the world's most expensive disaster. The Framework enunciated the general principles on which disaster risk was to be reduced for the next decade. It is now up for renewal (UNISDR 2013).

The preparations for the March 2015 UNISDR world conference on disaster risk reduction have gathered pace like a runaway train on an incline. Organisations from small to large, provincial to international, have been publishing their views on the process. Never in this field has there been such a desire to state the obvious (or at least the well-known) and repeat the message. It may well be that the whole process is unnecessary. Governments that are striving to reduce the risk of disaster would do it anyway: those that are not pulling their weight are unlikely to be influenced. The economics of disaster, and its effect on power structures, provide the imperative to reduce disaster. In considering this, it is as well to remember that national governments are increasingly marginalised by the forces of globalisation in production, migration, trade and the labour market. Where governments can have an effect, participatory governance (i.e popular involvement in democracy) and the rule of law are the determinants of whether the problems of civil society can be tackled effectively (Fukuyama 2014).

There is a "sex of the angels" feeling to the debate about what wording to include in HFA2. Unfortunately, the experience of other treaties, declarations and international programmes (ozone layer, CFCs, climate change, human rights, etc.) is not encouraging. Governments may or may not sign up, may or may not make promises and set targets, and may or may not make an effort to achieve them.

An alternative view is that the impetus comes neither from the national nor the international levels, but from local sources. Surveys suggest that there has been little influence of the global and national processes on local initiatives (GNCSODR 2009, 2011). Fundamentally, it may be that the debate, conducted in international conference centres and national cabinet offices, is detached from the reality on the ground.

Those readers who strongly support the HFA2 process may suggest that I have been unduly negative, indeed cynical, in this assessment. Time will tell whether an international framework for disaster risk reduction is helpful or not, or at least it will tell if we make the effort to find out. Certain developments are inevitable, others are unpredictable. Perhaps I have misunderstood HFA2, but it is not a legally binding treaty, it is a framework. To take a rather puritanical view, the effort that is going into negotiating the wording, the carbon emissions that are produced by international meetings, the struggle to produce a document, might better be spent reducing disaster risk at the local scale. One need not believe Kirschenbaum, but his analysis should stimulate us to think freshly about what is needed and what is worthwhile.

*In 2004 the field was not called 'disaster risk reduction', but there are always dilemmas as to what appellation to use. This is another problem that, fundamentally, does not matter!

References

ACT Alliance 2014. Sustaining Lives and Livelihoods in the Face of Disasters: Act Alliance Key Asks [sic] on the Post-2015 Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. ACT Alliance, Geneva, 8 pp.

Alexander, D.E. 2011. Sense and sensibility about terrorism. Journal of Integrated Disaster Risk Management 1(1): 1-12.

Fukuyama, F. 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. Profile Books, London, 464 pp.

GNCSODR 2009. "Clouds But Little Rain..." Views from the Frontline. A local perspective of progress towards implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Twickenham, UK, 64 pp.

GNCSODR 2011. "If We Do Not Join Hands..." Views from the Frontline. Local reports of progress on implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action, with strategic recommendations for more effective implementation. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Twickenham, UK, 51 pp.

Kirschenbaum, A. 2004a. Chaos, Organization, and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 328 pp.

Kirschenbaum, A. 2004b. Measuring the effectiveness of disaster management organizations. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 22(1): 75-102.

OECD 2010. Italy: Review of the Italian National Civil Protection System. OECD reviews of Risk Management Policies Vol. 4. Environment and Sustainable Development. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, 173 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015. Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2013. Towards the Post]2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: Tackling Future Risks, Economic Losses and Exposure. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 21 pp.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Leg-trap: toxic problems in disaster risk reduction


1.    How should we define our terminology?

2.    Do we have a discipline?

3.    Is what we do sufficiently interdisciplinary?

4.    Is disaster and emergency management a profession?

If you, gentle reader, can avoid having to answer these questions, you can make progress in research, teaching and service in DRR.

Cat among the pigeons: the twelve maxims of data analysis

The ongoing surge in the number of publications does not represent a corresponding increase in scientific productivity. In part, this is because many recently published studies do not observe the following dicta.

1.    No analytical study should be published for a general readership—scientific or otherwise—unless it contributes something genuinely new to knowledge about the matter in question. It is the responsibility of the author of the study to ascertain this by gaining a thorough knowledge of the pre-existing literature, including works which were not published in the recent past.

2.    No pattern in data should be presented as the result of an analysis without investigation of its meaning and significance.

3.    No analytical technique should be employed to analyse a data set unless a prior reason exists to use it.

4.    No sample should be taken unless the population from which it comes is well defined and the representativeness of the sample can be established.

5.    The smallest number of variables and the smallest data sets should be used compatible with achieving a reliable outcome to the analysis.

6.    Inductive methodology should be used as little as possible, and only when there are not enough indications to formulate a deductive hypothesis.

7.    Correlation should be abandoned unless causality can be established by independent means.

8    No index should ever be created unless it has a clear meaning independently of the numbers it contains.

9.    Ranks should never be assigned to phenomena with multiple meanings or significances.

10.    Data for which numbers are assigned (e.g. by expert opinion) should be used separately from data in which the numbers are derived by measurement.

11.    Principal components and factor analysis should be banned; they have no inherent meaning and do not acquire it in producing results.

12.    'Data' is a plural word.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fortieth Anniversary




On 19th September 1974, I set out from University College London bound for the Mezzogiorno in order to start my field research for a PhD in geomorphology. Hence, today marks the 40th anniversary of my involvement with Italy, something that has grown and diversified over the years.

I am now bilingual in Italian and able to give as good as I get in three dialects. I am familiar with 147 of the 150 largest cities and towns of Italy, and the three I have never visited (Vibo Valentia, Iglesias and Carbonia) are small and remote. I know all 20 regions and 109 provinces (my favourite place is Sabbioneta, followed closely by Montepulciano—but don't tell anyone!). Twenty-four years ago I wrote and published my first book in Italian, which appeared in hardback in Bologna. I now have family and property in Italy and a long experience of working with and within Italian universities, schools and other institutions from the far North to the Deep South and islands. For five years I occupied the position of Scientific Director in the Region of Lombardy's Advanced School of Civil Protection. In past years I have had a (rather disjointed) dialogue with the current Prime Minister and I have a rich but mixed experience of appearing in Italy's mass media.

For the past 700 years there has been nothing on Earth quite like Italy. Italians regard their nation with an odd mixture of pride and shame. It has given the world cultural riches beyond anyone's wildest imaginings, but it has also consistently defied logic. In short, it has disappointed as much as it has inspired. Nevertheless, many of the stereotypes about Italy are no more than that. It is a country of individualists, and one that tolerates individualism more than do most other nations, but it is capable of extraordinary feats of organisation and collective effort. In the applied part of my field, civil protection, it has created the best models and produced the greatest synergies. Yet one consistent trait in Italy is that it is nearly perfect, but, in the modern world, the utter inability to remove that word 'nearly' leaves it hanging on the brink of great achievement. A Swiss professor of pathology once told me that, in his opinion, Italy is the place where genius is closest to madness. He was from the German-speaking part of his country and his view was entirely consistent with the Swiss love of order and predictability (Canton Ticino, where they speak a sort of Italian, is regarded by some Swiss as the Alabama of Switzerland). But perhaps he had a point.

One effect of the individualism is that, more than any other country, Italy is the land of diversity. It is usually amusing to watch the incomprehension between northerners and southerners, at least if it is benign rather than unpleasant, as they struggle unsuccessfully to understand each other's cultures. It is disorientating to ask for directions in Val Venosta only to find that one's German-speaking interlocutor pretends not to understand any Italian—and yet on the other side of the valley they speak Ladin (a mountain language) and no German. It is amusing to see the disdain that the people of Livorno have for the inhabitants of nearby Pisa, and how that is represented in the Vernacoliere, their monthly satirical magazine, or the haughtiness of the Florentines when they regard the Sienese, and the reciprocation of the latter. Occasionally, the safety valve lifts (on social media, perhaps) and out boils all the suspicion, incomprehension, distrust and disdain that each city state, or pocket-handkerchief territory, harbours for the rest of the country. I had an early introduction to this when, in 1974, I was taken to see a self-proclaimed 'republic' in the hills of the Province of Matera founded by a man who fell out with the administrations of the towns of Tricarico and Grassano and set up his own fiefdom at the crossroads half way between them. None of the local inhabitants thought this unusual.

It is always interesting to see how Italians regard the British. The official ties between the two countries are much less significant than the informal ones. The United Kingdom is a sort of alter ego to Italy. It is not always admired, and not always respected, but it is never ignored. Italian knowledge of Britain is generally limited to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and Plymouth (perhaps I should add the indigenous Italian community of Bedford, but it is in danger of being eclipsed by Asian Britons). This represents a sort of colonisation attempt, and the rest of the country is hic sunt leones. Indeed, Italian journalists have written books to explain Britain to Italians, from which one would think that there is no inhabited land north of the Severn-Trent line—works that are almost as bad as the Brits' literary efforts to explain Italy (it cannot be done). I once met an Italian in Dorchester, who was completely disorientated and trying to act like some brave pioneer. I did also once meet one who toured the Scottish Highlands in a Fiat cinquecento (the original model), but that was regarded as equivalent to going the wrong way across the Sahara Desert.

My grandfather worked for Negretti & Zambra, the Clarkenwell instrument makers, which was eventually swallowed up by another British company—Marconi. In 1944, my father did a stint in the Italian Navy aboard ships such as the Reale Incrociatore G. Garibaldi, and the minesweepers Indomito and Fenice. Fascism had collapsed and they used these ships in British convoys. It all amounted to a certain predisposition to italianesimo, acquired, I suppose, by cultural osmosis. The dilemma of those of us who are propelled into new cultural domains is that we can never completely abandon our roots and never completely assimilate the new environment. For instance, I can never understand why there have to be at least three chat shows on Italian television every night of the year, nor why they always consist of a table full of people shouting at each other and not listening to what anyone else says. After a long sojourn in Italy, I once interrupted a speaker at a round table discussion in Germany. The consensus was that I should abjectly beg forgiveness of all participants. In Italy, he who shouts loudest wins—probably using a mobile phone in a crowded place. And, by the way, on one occasion, I heard a phone play a can-can during a benediction by the Bishop of Prato. Thank God it wasn't a funeral!

In 40 years some habits die hard. Weeks ago I overdid it on Amaro Lucano, an after-dinner liqueur that my father once described as "alcoholic syrup of figs", referring to the laxative he was given as a child. It was pure nostalgia, as I did my PhD research on soil erosion that eats away at the ground around the Amaro Lucano factory at Scalo Pisticci in the Basento Valley of Basilicata, southern Italy, at least 86 km from the nearest city. Forty years of momentous change have passed, but at least Amaro Lucano is the same, although possibly a little watered down compared to how it was in 1974, or 1894?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Pros and Cons of European Research on Disaster Risk Reduction

The European Commission (EC) has pledged €78 billion to support projects under the 'Horizon 2020' Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Union. After seven previous framework programmes, perhaps it is time to take stock as the latest one begins and the frenzy of proposal writing gets underway.

On the positive side, European funding has propelled institutions towards a form of collaboration in which there are bound to be synergies. For some countries, and many institutions, framework programmes such as FP6, FP7 and H2020 are the only source of external funding to which they can apply. These programmes have moved the agenda decisively towards applied research and evaluation of the utility of research products. They have contributed to European unity and striven to satisfy the needs of European citizens. In the field of disaster risk reduction, there have been substantial phases of research into vulnerability and resilience, and these have helped create a body of methodology and have illustrated how it can be used by risk managers in the public and private sectors. The funding has produced a rich variety and copious number of forums in which the problems of managing risks, dealing with disaster and recovering from impacts have been debated very thoroughly.

Despite these considerable advantages, there are drawbacks. To begin with, the templates imposed by the EC for applications, the submissions procedure and the proposal evaluation mechanism are all suitably rigorous, but they tend to encourage mediocrity and discourage real innovation. Because the investment of large sums of money is involved, research funding decisions tend inherently to be conservative and averse to risk. Most European projects succeed in achieving their aims and some fail, but are the aims really worthwhile? All the projects contain elements such as a website, management structure, software, oversight committees, "stakeholder" meetings, brochures, fliers and work-packages (how, exactly, can work be "packaged"?). Are all such elements needed, and what differentiates one project from another?

The inherent conservatism and conformity tend to filter out creativity and the kinds of risk-taking that lead directly to innovation. The net result of these projects is a massive duplication of research output. In part, this stems from the rigid structure imposed on the research design and precise requirements concerning the applications of research; in part it comes from the conservatism of the evaluation process; and in part it is a result of the dilution of initiative by the need to collaborate on all matters, large and small.

From FP6 to H2020 there is a trend towards increasing the applied component of research projects and placing a heavy emphasis on technological development. In some instances, this has had the effect of 'hollowing out' research and creating fresh sources of vulnerability to disaster (Figure 1). Many FP7 and H2020 projects involve the manufacture of software and hardware designed to support risk and emergency managers. Seldom is there any evaluation of whether the ever more sophisticated routines and gadgets are actually more efficient than pencil and paper or word of mouth. Moreover, there is frequently a risk that induced dependency on sophisticated electronic equipment or routines will leave the users vulnerable to the effects of the failure of such technology during a crisis. If the equipment gives erroneous results, the operator does not understand exactly how to use it, or, quite simply, a battery runs down and there is no means of recharging it, then the result is, at best, inefficiency and at worst an inability to carry out vital tasks.


Figure 1. How funding arrangements are 'hollowing out' research.

Besides the common lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of technology, it is quickly outdated by the development of new devices, systems and platforms. Either it will become redundant or large amounts of money must be spent on adapting it, which in the majority of cases is unlikely to happen because the project that produced will probably end before the adaptation is needed. In addition, the more sophisticated a technology is, the more training it requires in order to be used. The training infrastructure may be poorly developed and the result may be either under-use of devices and software or the emergence of a technological elite upon whom the non-users depend.

One of the greatest risks of this situation is that over-sophisticated responses will be developed to essentially simple problems. "Stakeholder interest" tends to be fickle and so does the involvement of target "end-users". Although many projects go to elaborate lengths to understand the needs of the users, in many cases there is no guarantee that the initial rush of enthusiasm will be followed by sustained adoption of what is proposed. The criterion for many end users is whether a device, routine, methodology or other supposed innovation makes their work easier or more successful. Over-sophistication obscures rather than answers that question.

European research financing has spawned a large number of private institutions that feed on it. Some provide technological services and some actively do research. Some exist merely to create research proposals. The level of competency of these organisations varies more than that of the research universities, and so does their ability to manage research projects. Although the EC's aim of including "small and medium size enterprises in research is laudable, it surely did not mean that the process should create such institutions as self-perpetuating entities.

One thing that all institutions seem to have in common is a rush to publish. There is an assumption, which is largely false, that productivity equates with copiousness. Applied to post-disaster investigation, some have aptly termed this the "gold-rush mentality" (Gomez and Hart 2013). This prompts a consideration of the general state of disaster studies, as they are the context in which European projects in this field are set.

Ballooning publication rates are fuelled by several trends. One is the tendency to publish ever earlier in one's career, which makes a mockery of experience, and possibly also of training. It reduces the role of accumulated wisdom and narrows the perspective by excluding large bodies of previously acquired knowledge. It is thus hardly surprising that disaster research tends to "reinvent the wheel" by repeating research. A good example of this is the small symposium on risk perception and management in relation to Hurricane Sandy published in Risk Analysis journal (Cox and Lowrie 2014). The findings of the perception research essentially replicated those obtained after Atlantic hurricanes  in previous decades (e.g. Beatley and Brower 1986, Cross 1990)  Another is the strong connection between academic publication and personnel decisions. A third factor is the effect of highly misleading bibliometric measures (Moustafa 2014).

Disasters are becoming ever more sophisticated phenomena, with subtle and complex changes in their occurrence and their context. Studies of disaster seem to become ever more summary and focussed on elements that contribute little or nothing to the broader picture and the development of theory. One has the sensation that we are moving away from understanding disasters, rather than becoming more knowledgeable. As disaster research has increased, so the overall quality has decreased, giving rise to a widening per capita 'inspiration gap' among researchers. Per person, we seem to know less than we did decades ago, not more (Figure 2).


Figure 2. The 'inspiration gap' in disaster research.

Over the last 30 years, disaster research has shied away from facing up to its own fundamental issues: human rights, moral disengagement, ethical issues, fairness, equity and stability in human communities. Disasters can only be understood in the context of a society that is becoming less and less fair, and in many parts of the world more and more unstable. The gap between, on the one hand, expectations and recommendations (i.e. diagnosis and proposed cure) and, on the other, action—or the lack of it—on the ground, has never been higher. Hence, I believe that research, in Europe as elsewhere, has to be more creative, innovative, broadly based and realistic than it currently is. To achieve this, the funding mechanism needs to be adjusted, and that will require some radical departures from the current model.

References

Beatley, T. and Brower, D.J. 1986. Public perceptions of hurricane hazards: the differential effects of Hurricane Diana. Coastal Zone Management Journal 14: 241-269.

Cox, T. and K. Lowrie (eds) 2014. Papers on risk perception and Hurricane Sandy. Risk Analysis 34(6): 981-1094.

Cross, J.A. 1990. Longitudinal change in hurricane hazard perception. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 8(1): 31-48.

Gomez, C. and D.E Hart 2013. Disaster gold rushes, sophisms and academic neocolonialism: comments on ‘Earthquake disasters and resilience in the global North’. Geographical Journal 179(3): 272-277.

Moustafa, K. 2014. The disaster of the impact factor. Science and Engineering Ethics DOI: 10.1007/s11948-014-9517-0. (Impact Factor: 1.516)

Monday, 21 July 2014

On Evidence-Based Practice



Revellers dressed as Mozart (or the female equivalent) dig up a gas main in central London sometime in the 1930s. Evidence of not much at all.

   "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"
    - Thomas Gradgrind, in Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Several days before I wrote this piece, the British Government suppressed a report it had commissioned on immigration into the United Kingdom. News of this was leaked to the press, and BBC television interviewed a government spokesperson, Mr Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and a Liberal Democrat politician. Mr Cable described the report as "one-sided" and was very much at ease with the fact that the Government had had it rewritten twice and was reluctant to issue the final product in any shape or form. The report (which I cannot reference) consisted of a wide-ranging survey of the evidence on immigration to the UK. According to the television news, it concluded that immigration has had a range of positive benefits for British society and economy. It also noted that immigrants use the National Health System less than indigenous Britons and contribute very much to it in terms of their skills and labour. This is in contrast to the Government's legislation to curb "benefits tourism" (a phenomenon that the report notes is largely non-existent).

The reason for mentioning this case here is that the British Government commissioned a review of evidence and then tried to alter and suppress it because the evidence ran counter to its policies. The evidence could not be used to support an anti-European or xenophobic stance, nor to increase the anxieties of voters about multiculturalism and the shortage of jobs.

As it happens, I do believe in "evidence-based practice". Logic demands that we take experience into account and that we consider all relevant knowledge pertaining to a problem before we decide how to solve it. Without such an approach, policy makers risk blundering around in the dark, and their policies risk being, at best, inefficient, and at worst downright injurious. However, there are two main problems with evidence-based practice. One concerns the nature of evidence and the other refers to the way in which it is, or is not, used.

What is evidence?

It is axiomatic that policy and practice should be based on as complete a knowledge of a problem as the evidence will allow. That is why policy formulators use academics and advisors, because they have a wide-ranging knowledge of the problem in question, its connotations and the evidence that, properly interpreted, can lead to a solution.

However, for any problem in society, economy and ecology that begs to be solved, there are at least nine important questions that may well lack an adequate answer. They are as follows.

  • What exactly is evidence?
  • To what extent is evidence a surrogate for direct experience, or, alternatively, how much evidence should be derived from experience and how much from indirect sources?
  • How should evidence be verified?
  • Leading on from the previous question, is 'evidence' merely objective data, or does it include subjective experience?
  • Evidence of what? To what should the evidence be attributed?
  • What is evidence capable of proving or confirming?
  • What is the connection between evidence and wisdom?
  • Can we do without evidence?
  • Lastly, how much evidence is enough before decisions can be made?
Clearly, the answers to these questions will differ from case to case. In general, 'evidence' is information that is capable of contributing to the solution of the problem, which has been obtained by objective methods and that paints an objective picture of the situation under examination, and one that is as complete as needed in order to draw conclusions, formulate policy and develop strategies to implement a solution.

Merely trawling for data does not adequately define the process of compiling evidence. On the other hand, the inevitable resort to selectivity risks the introduction of bias into the process of accumulating evidence. Moreover, as risk analysis involves risk perception, and as risk perception has a strong influence on how risks are communicated and managed, then subjective experience is clearly part of the 'evidence' in some way. 'Wisdom' is therefore the process of sifting and selecting evidence in an impartial and even-handed manner. In the modern world, information technology has promoted a massive return to the kinds of inductive science that were common in the times of the Encyclop├ędistes of the eighteenth century. Computers have taken the hard work out of blind analysis of data, but they have also removed the thinking. In intellectual terms, there is nothing more feeble and pathetic than data mining.

How should evidence be used?

There are three kinds of evidence:-
  • precise and decisive
  • equivocal, ambiguous and puzzling
  • uninterpretable (evidence of what?).
Data  are a low-level form of evidence and may not be enough to form an adequate generalisation about a phenomenon. Disaster impacts have two unfortunate features: over time, they are spiky and they have a (somewhat ambiguous) trend. Hence, it can be difficult to make a generalisation about the future on the basis of evidence derived from the past. This was illustrated by an editorial in a journal, which congratulated the world on reducing disaster death tolls to 59,000 a year over the previous five years (Wilson 2005). It was published just as the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more people in one catastrophe than had died in all disasters during the previous 60 months. Unfortunately, for many phenomena, evidence alone will never be sufficient to characterise them, especially if their mean values trend over time. Hence, we need evidence, models and inspiration. As all use of evidence is selective, the criteria by which facts are selected should be made explicit so that they can be evaluated. In short, evidence can constrain uncertainty, but it cannot eradicate it.

A cautionary tale

The Irish engineer Robert Mallet developed a strong interest in earthquakes. Indeed, he is to some extent the "Father of Seismology". One of his greatest achievements was to compile all the known evidence of earthquakes into a catalogue and map. Mallet knew  the location of plate boundaries before anyone knew of the existence of tectonic plates. In December 1857 the Italian region of Basilicata was struck by a major earthquake that killed about 5,000 people. Mallet organised an expedition there and assiduously collected evidence, often at great personal hardship, which he published in two volumes that have become classics of observational science (Mallet 1862). Mallet missed no piece of evidence, however trivial, but he was unable to deduce the cause of earthquakes, which he thought had something to do with subterranean steam. It took John Milne (1850-1913) to do that, in concert with a number of other scientists, using a new and more sensitive kind of seismograph.

Let's ignore the evidence

Here is a more modern case, but one that harks back in its structure to the immigration question with which I started this piece. Since 2006 there has been a set of international regulations that prohibit passengers from taking bottles of liquids larger than 100 ml onto flights. It stems from some assumptions about how liquids could be mixed on board an aircraft to make a bomb. To begin with, the standard size of bottles, at least in the European Union, is 60 an 120 ml. Hence, vast numbers of the latter have had to be thrown away at airports (the container size is what matters, not the amount of liquid inside the bottle). Secondly, in terms of concocting a bomb, 100 ml is definitely not a magic number. I asked a highly experienced counter-terrorism artificer about this and he told me that 25 ml of certain substances would be sufficient. I do not know whether one could buy the relevant substances in the airport pharmacy, having already passed security.

I mention this example because there is virtually never any attempt to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures. The evidence is secret, or perhaps merely lacking.

Let's ignore the evidence when it hits us in the face

A report from the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction states that "The City of Venice joined the [Safe Cities] Campaign as a role model for cultural heritage protection and climate change adaptation" (UNISDR 2013). Indeed, such an example is Venice that it appeared on the cover of this document. In reality, Venice is severely threatened by the arrival of cruise ships of up to 140,000 tonnes in size, which navigate within one metre of the historical urban fabric, causing damage with their bow waves and creating a massive risk of collision and shipwreck. Despite the example of the Costa Concordia (the world's most expensive shipwreck), in 35 years of debate the city council has refused to legislate on this issue. Protests by Venetian residents have turned violent but there has been no change. Indeed, no attempt was made adequately to regulate the chaotic water transport on the Grand Canal until an eminent German was crushed and drowned in the collision between two boats. Meanwhile, the mayor, Sig. Giorgio Orsoni, has resigned after being arrested in a corruption investigation regarding the city's flood defences. So much for evidence-based practice, both within Venice and looking in.

Conclusion

Evidence-based practice is a good idea providing we are not too naive about it. Any attempt to collect, martial and interpret evidence on a particular problem needs to be transparent, fair and impartial. It must state the criteria by which evidence is included and excluded, and must ensure that an objective, balanced view of the problem is compiled. Besides the fact that they are grossly inefficient, inductive and aductive processes will not automatically ensure this. A 'blind' approach to evidence will not make it objective or comprehensive, because choices inevitably have to be made in the way that evidence is collected.

Lastly, examples described in this essay illustrate the fact that evidence alone does not "shame" policy makers into adopting a better, more objective approach. They are perfectly at liberty to use evidence selectively, or ignore it altogether.

Hence, we need an evidence-based investigation of exactly how and why policy makers ignore or manipulate the evidence.

References

Mallet, R. 1862. Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology. Chapman and Hall for the Royal Society, London, 2 vols.

UNISDR 2013. Making Cities Resilient: Summary for Policymakers. A Global Snapshot of How Local Governments Reduce Disaster Risk. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 20 pp.

Wilson, H.C. 2005. Editorial. Disaster Prevention and Management 14(1).
http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=0965-3562&volume=14&issue=1&articleid=17096777&show=html (accessed 21 July 2014).

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Transitional housing, time travel and 'lost worlds'


Transitional housing, time travel and 'lost worlds'

While conducting fieldwork in central Italy some years ago, I met a priest whose name was Dante Paolino. Don Paolino was very fond of his namesake, the 14th-century poet Dante. He presented me with a copy of a book he had written and published, entitled The Divine Comedy Brought Up to Date. In this, he used Dante's great masterpiece as a vehicle for commenting on the wiles of the modern world. Readers with a literary disposition may remember that in the Divine Comedy Dante recounts how he is conducted around Hell, Purgatory and Heaven by his mentor, the Roman poet Virgil. The poem is very much a commentary on life and mores in mediaeval Tuscany. In Don Dante Paolino's 20th century version, one of the circles of hell is entirely populated with earthquake victims from the South of Italy (he wrote it shortly after the 1980 Irpinia-Basilicata earthquake, which damaged or destroyed the homes of 400,000 people).

In examining transitional shelter, one is motivated to ask what is 'transitional' for people who lack the resources to get out of it and have been abandoned by their government? Is the answer Hell or merely Purgatory? Sudden-impact disasters can abruptly cast people from a stable existence, one that is normal in terms of their expectations, and those of the communities in which they live, to one that is anything but stable and normal. Stability may be achieved by a form of 'suspended animation', in which a temporary situation 'freezes' and becomes permanent.

At the turn of the millennium, the city of Messina still had some of the temporary accommodation erected after the 1908 Strait of Messina earthquake and tsunami. Granted, it was no longer used as primary housing, but it was still there. Likewise, vestiges of the temporary accommodation can be found in the vicinity of Avezzano, central-southern Italy, even though a century has passed since the 1915 earthquake, which killed 32,500 people and devastated the town.

Romagnano al Monte is one of the smallest municipalities in the Region of Campania, southern Italy. Its fiscal position is gloomy and its political weight is negligible. Hence, 35 years after the 1980 earthquake that devastated the town and necessitated complete evacuation of the original urban fabric, the wooden prefabs are still in situ. The town hall and local coffee bar are still in prefabricated buildings erected by the Italian government at Christmas 1980. To be fair, part of this is a matter of convenience. Prefabs that served as people's transitional homes have been turned into holiday accommodation, but they are still a visual reminder of a long phase of waiting in "transitional" circumstances, while reconstruction slowly, painfully got underway.




The town coffee bar at Romagnano al Monte, southern Italy,

a prefab erected after the 1980 earthquake and photographed in 2011.

Italian Government policy on transitional shelter in the aftermath of the L'Aquila (central Italy) earthquake of 2009 is described in more detail elsewhere in this book and is interesting because it is so radical. Lavishing very large sums of money on transitional shelter can be interpreted as a message to the beneficiaries that the temporary situation is designed to last. It is an expression of pessimism in the ability to find the necessary money and political drive to achieve full recovery in any reasonable length of time.

Once, during a tour of the backwoods of rural Calabria (southern Italy), I drove around a corner and came face to face with a group of about 20 prefabs, nestling in a valley. I found out that they had been built for families made homeless by a large landslide about 25 years previously. There they lay, fully inhabited and completely forgotten by the rest of society. How many more "lost worlds" of this kind are there?

Transitional shelter is an artefact of wealthy countries. Units usually cost upwards of US$20,000, and possibly much more than that, with transportation and site preparation costs included. Whereas the problem of transitional shelter that does not adequately fit the needs of its beneficiaries is well known in the context of donor countries supplying it to poor nations that have suffered disaster, there is a parallel set of issues associated with the domestic use of shelter in rich, or relatively rich, countries.

Barrack-style temporary housing was supplied to homeless survivors of the 1968 earthquakes in the Belice Valley of western Sicily. It was unpleasant to live in, cramped and poorly situated with respect to people's needs (such as travel to work, agricultural activities and shopping for basic necessities), but it was a roof over their heads at a critical moment. Predictably, as soon as alternative accommodation was arranged, it was abandoned. On a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1983 I visited the prefabs and found them silent, deserted and empty amid the parched fields. Later, with the influx of illegal migrants from North Africa, they were recolonised by groups of people who were lower down the social scale than the original beneficiaries. In similar manner, in central Italy, the land abandoned after the massive landslide of 1982 in the city of Ancona was briefly colonised by itinerant groups of Roma, who had nowhere else to pitch camp.

These are situations in which transitional housing has contributed to a 'ghettoisation' of the disaster area, which may, as time goes on, accumulate a sense of relative permanence. Thus, transitional housing is capable of creating a new stratification in local society—between the upper caste, who did not lose their permanent homes, and the lower caste, who did, and are forced to live in the prefabs. Community spirit and solidarity are not well served by such a distinction and one hopes that recovery policies will eliminate it as soon as possible by doggedly pursuing full reconstruction and eventually dismantling the prefabs. Yet this is often not the case.

In many countries where there is substantial poverty, a significant proportion of the population lives in so-called 'informal' housing. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro this can attain remarkable levels of social and architectural sophistication, while at the same time retaining all the crude drawbacks of precarious, unplanned urbanisation. At its very worst, the permanence of transitional housing in richer countries could be regarded as a regression to something akin to the 'informal' settlements of less fortunate countries. Granted, it does not go all the way and is a far cry from the lawlessness and destitution that characterise such places in many of the world's developing metropolises. However, if nothing else, the presence of these situations, frozen in time, and the social realities that they represent, call into question the definition of welfare.

Where it exists, welfare is the social safety net. It can be defined as "the provision of care to a minimum acceptable standard to people who are unable adequately to look after themselves." This begs the question of what the 'minimum acceptable standard' should be, and what it entails? The answer is highly variable from one country to another, even among wealthy nations. With increases in global mobility—and people-trafficking—there is also a burning question about to whom welfare applies. In many respects, the solution is a matter of determining what welfare is not, instead of what it is.

Transitional housing is usually donated to its users. They do not have to buy it and probably do not pay rent to live in it. Local authorities may be charged with maintaining it, unless a central government agency takes over this function. In the case of the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, transitional housing was supplied to many people and families whose homes had been swept away by the waves. It was designed and supplied under central government auspices. it was highly standardised and a balance was struck between functionality and cost. Living in the transitional units was unpleasant, but it embodied a pact between the residents and the Japanese Government: endure these conditions for up to seven years, but no more, and you will move into safe, acceptable permanent housing. Hence, the key to understanding transitional housing lies in whether there is a relationship of trust between the users and the government (at whichever level), an how strong that relationship is.



Transitional housing near Ishinomaki, northeast Japan, in 2013.

The welfare function of transitional housing in cases that differ strongly from the Japanese example is, in effect, truncated. The Government is telling survivors, in so many words, "we will start you off on the road to recovery by providing basic shelter" but the rest is up to you, and if you do not have the resources to progress beyond this stage, this is where you will remain."

Paradoxically, this sort of failure of welfare induces dependency. Beneficiaries can go neither forward nor backward. They are politically weightless, not empowered, not listened to. It is to be expected that such situations are most common in areas that are backwaters in a country's political and economic life. From the point of view of a government administrator, or a politician seeking re-election, it does not matter if the inhabitants of a forgotten mountain valley are left in limbo. Yet occasionally such situations turn around. The inertia in western Sicily after the 1968 earthquakes became a festering problem that forced the Italian Government to act 15-20 years after the disaster, which it did using what Americans will recognise as 'pork-barrel legislation', the enactment of measures on the back of provisions for other disasters. Elsewhere, the plight of the 'transitional tribes' will become a matter, not so much for anthropologists, but for archaeologists!