Reflections on helping research partners who support those made vulnerable during the crisis

Authors: Angelika Strohmayer
Posted: Tue, April 07, 2020 - 12:04:11

Over the past few days, I have had many conversations with friends and colleagues who work with charities, libraries, and other organizations who support some of the most vulnerable people in society. As you might well be aware, these organizations are grappling with appropriate and timely responses to the developing global COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are thinking and talking about ways in which we, as researchers, practitioners, and people, can support our research partners in these trying times. This is while keeping in mind that staff in these services are working on overdrive at the moment; trying to keep up with ongoing changes to all of our lives while also maintaining contact with those who they support. 

Like many others, staff who support victim-survivors of domestic violence, those experiencing homelessness, families with children in care, people who are in addiction recovery, or others who may have various intersecting complex needs are working from home. Many will have had to suspend the in-person drop-in services and pause ongoing group work programs they usually facilitate, and instead are now working hard to figure out how to best use technologies to carry on with this work remotely. As technology researchers and designers, we may be uniquely placed to support organizations at a time when many are using digital technologies to carry out their work, with many adopting any such technologies for the first time. 

The research partners I have worked with are developing strategies in small teams and then sharing the learning across their wider organizations. They are making use of what's available to them: mobile phones, email, video calls, and free platforms that allow them to communicate with those they support. However, there is of course the issue that many of the people they support don't have access to reliable internet connections, and that they may not have laptops, tablets, or smartphones—7 percent of households in the U.K. have no internet access at all. Some of the people who are supported by these organizations are now at greater risk of experiencing violence from their partners, and others may be at risk of perpetrating more violence toward their partners as anxieties are on the rise and coupled with social distancing measures in response to the crisis; we know that natural disasters and diseases often lead to increased number of domestic violence reports. Others may not have homes at all to self-isolate and are instead sleeping rough or in overcrowded emergency accommodation. Despite these barriers, many people are working hard to stay in touch with those most vulnerable and those at greatest risk, and they're interested in finding creative ways of doing this. 

From the conversations I've had with colleagues who work in this space on a regular basis, and this may come as no surprise, I've learned that many of us want to help out. But I've also learned that we're not sure about how to best lend our support. 

We design technologies for a living, and may have spent years working with partners to do research and develop innovative tools: We have some skills to share. But at the same time, we must be conscious that even when we have good and longstanding relationships with these organizations, we are not party to their crisis meetings and strategies, nor are we knowledgeable about their existing contingency planning, and we only have partial views of their full service delivery. 

One way of helping is very simple but may be difficult to fully come to terms with: We should pause our in-person fieldwork. Many of us have already done this. Just like us researchers, our partners will be upset about the projects that have had to be paused. Especially when we work closely with partners in participatory ways, the projects are often as valuable to them as they are to us; they care about them as much as we do. At least in my case, this meant learning how to balance conversations between managing immediate crisis needs and looking toward the time after the crisis. 

Earlier this week, I talked to one of my collaborators who is in a managerial role of a national charity that supports women and children. This meeting had been organized to discuss an ongoing project before the crisis hit the U.K., but we decided to keep the time in our calendars even though the project was now on hold. As we were about to end the meeting, I repeated that she should simply send anything that needed doing my way. Unexpectedly, she said that conversations like the one we had just had were very helpful. She then also thanked me for an invitation I had tentatively sent her on Twitter for a 20-minute session organized by to find our inner calm. She had joined in the facilitated meditation session that morning, providing her a less anxious start to the day. 

The video chat she had had with me and the 20 minutes of guided meditation were a starkly different kind of meeting to the other daily crisis updates, calls, and chats she has with the staff she supports. They were a relief from the anxiety that is caused by this ongoing pandemic. So maybe it is our role as researchers and designers not to “do” too much, but to acknowledge our partners' human needs and to support them in unconventional ways

So what can we actually do to help out? We can offer our help. But when we do this, we have to acknowledge this is an unprecedented situation and that our partners may already be overwhelmed by offers of support, or may not know how our skills could be useful. As researchers, we have to understand this and weigh up how supportive our offers of support actually are. This may also be our opportunity to pause our “research” thoughts and instead enact solidarity and help out in other ways that are suitable. 

We can offer up our expertise without overpromising. And we can offer to help by talking through potential digital responses to the developing needs and concerns they are facing. But simultaneously, we must not overburden staff who are already working beyond their normal workloads while assimilating to working from home, caring for their own families and loved ones, and coming to terms with the anxiety and grief due to the pandemic. 

When offering support, providing examples of what we could do to help out can be immensely useful. This might include things such as writing up and designing materials, documenting practices to share as models of good practice, or being a sounding board for staff to figure out how to work with the technologies that are available to them. Before doing this, it's important to read any public response to the crisis the partner may have put out to tailor our offers. We should be looking to reduce pressures on services and think of ways we can use our research skills and provide clear avenues for our support. 

At the same time, though, we also have to acknowledge and appreciate that our own workplaces will have certain expectations of us, and that our funders have relatively strict timelines. While some universities are supporting their staff during this transition, many seem to be expecting the impossible of their staff and students: to continue as normal. Sadly, as is so often the case in academia, the research disruptions I talk about here and that COVID-19 is causing will have the greatest effects on early career researchers, precariously employed staff, and Ph.D. students' job and career prospects. We must find ways to support those most vulnerable in our workplaces informally but also through institutional support. 

To work toward building understanding, we can build community. HCI is an interdisciplinary field-one that lends itself greatly to building community across disciplines, forms of expertise, and types of organizations. We must remember that nobody knows what the “right” way of going about working in this crisis is, because nobody has been through such a situation before. But we can still learn from previous experiences. We can ask one another for help, and should be sharing resources and information on things we can do to help. Some starting points might be the Rapid Response Research Toolkit, this Google Doc on how to do fieldwork during a pandemic, or this more specific document for HCI researchers

Having conversations among ourselves as researchers to share experiences and ideas has been helpful for me as well to figure out how to best get in touch with those who have shared so much time with me over the years of doing research together. Formalized formats, such as the weekly webinars NORTHLab at Northumbria University in the U.K. have been hosting, are incredibly useful in learning more about all the different ways in which research can be useful in this time of uncertainty. But much more informal conversations I have had during the weekly digital tea breaks have been organizing on a Thursday, or even scheduled chats I've had with colleagues, have also been immensely helpful for me to get to grips with what is going on, which has ultimately helped me make decisions about how I am able to lend a hand. 

Coming back to my conversations with partners, perhaps another way of helping out might be the simple act of inviting our collaborators to social virtual hangouts. To encourage, promote, and enact compassionate and proactive solidarity; to offer a virtual cup of tea to them, just like they have offered so many physical cups of tea to ourselves and those whom they support. 

Posted in: Covid-19 on Tue, April 07, 2020 - 12:04:11

Angelika Strohmayer

Angelika Strohmayer is an interdisciplinary technology researcher, working closely with third sector organizations and other stakeholders to creatively integrate digital technologies in service delivery and advocacy work. She aims to work collaboratively on in-the-world projects that engage people at all stages of the research process to engender change toward a more just world. [email protected]
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