Before COVID-19, children would spend a lot of the day at school. There they would be taught about internet safety and be protected when going online by systems that filter or restrict access to online content.
Schools provide protective environments to restrict access to content such as pornography and gambling. They also protect children from various threats such as viruses and unmoderated social media.
This is usually done using filters and blacklists (lists of websites or other resources that aren’t allowed) applied to school devices or through the school internet connection.
But with many children learning from home, parents may not be aware of the need for the same safeguards.
Many parents are also working from home, which may limit the time to explore and set up a secure online environment for their children.
So, what threats are children exposed to and what can parents do to keep them safe?
With an increased use of web-based tools, downloading new applications and a dependence on email, children could be exposed to a new batch of malware threats in the absence of school-based controls.
This can include viruses and ransomware – for example, CovidLock (an application offering coronavirus related information) that targets the Android operating system and changes the PIN code for the lock-screen. If infected, the user can lose complete access to their device.
Children working at home are not usually protected by the filters provided by their school.
Seemingly innocent teaching activities like the use of YouTube can expose children to unexpected risks given the breadth of inappropriate adult content available.
Most videos end with links to a number of related resources, the selection of which is not controlled by the school. Even using YouTube Kids, a subset of curated YouTube content filtered for appropriateness, has some risks. There have been reports of content featuring violence, suicidal themes and sexual references.
Many schools are using video conferencing tools to maintain social interaction with students. There have been reports of cases of class-hijacking, including Zoom-bombing where uninvited guests enter the video-conference session.
The FBI Boston field office has documented inappropriate comments and imagery introduced into an online class. A similar case in Connecticut resulted in a teenager being arrested after further Zoom-bombing incidents.
Because video conferencing is becoming normalised, malicious actors (including paedophiles) may seek to exploit this level of familiarity. They can persuade children to engage in actions that can escalate to inappropriate sexual behaviours.
The eSafety Office has reported a significant increase in a range of incidents of online harm since early March.
In a particularly sickening example, eSafety Office investigators said:
In one forum, paedophiles noted that isolation measures have increased opportunities to contact children remotely and engage in their “passion” for sexual abuse via platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and random webchat services.
Some families may be using older or borrowed devices if there aren’t enough for their children to use. These devices may not offer the same level of protection against common internet threats (such as viruses) as they may no longer be supported by the vendor (such as Microsoft or Apple) and be missing vital updates.
They may also be unable to run the latest protective software (such as antivirus) due to incompatibilities or simply being under-powered.
It’s worth speaking with the school to determine what safeguards may still function while away from the school site.
Some solutions operate at device-level rather than based on their location, so it is possible the standard protections will still be applicable at home.
Some devices support filters and controls natively. For example, many Apple devices offer ScreenTime controls to limit access to apps and websites and apply time limits to device use (recent Android devices might have the Digital Wellbeing feature with similar capabilities).
Traditional mechanisms like firewalls and anti-virus tools are still essential on laptops and desktop systems. It is important these are not just installed and forgotten. Just like the operating systems, they need to be regularly updated.
There is a wealth of advice available to support children using technology at home.
The Australian eSafety Commissioner’s website, for instance, provides access to:
an online safety booklet for children under five
advice on parental controls such as setting up filters on the home internet
an on-line safety guide for young people
specific advice on the “big issues” such as cyberbullying and unwanted contact or grooming
global safety advice to help parents deal with online abuse.
But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by these materials, some key messages include:
ensuring (where appropriate) the device is regularly updated. This can include updating the operating system such as Windows, Android or Mac
using appropriate antivirus software (and ensuring it is also kept up to date)
applying parental controls to limit screen time, specific app use (blocking or limiting use), or specific website blocks (such as blocking access to YouTube)
on some devices, parental controls can limit use of the camera and microphone to prevent external communication
applying age restrictions to media content and websites (the Communications Alliance has a list of accredited family friendly filters)
monitoring your child’s use of apps or web browsing activities
when installing apps for children, checking online and talking to other parents about them
configuring web browsers to use “safe search”
ensuring children use devices in sight of parents
talking to your children about online behaviours.
While technology can play a part, ensuring children work in an environment where there is (at least periodic) oversight by parents is still an important factor.
Effective learning is a two-way process between the teacher and students, meaning both need to engage.
If a student simply sits and listens to new information without engaging or applying it, it’s called passive learning. Active learning is where students engage with new learning making connections to concepts they have learned previously.
According to one of the world’s leading university educators, Harvard University’s Professor Eric Mazur, “interactive learning triples students’ gains in knowledge”.
Here are six things students can do while studying online to ensure they are learning actively and and making gains.
Balancing a laptop on your knees on your bed, or with the television on in the background, is not the best way to study. Students learn best when their learning space minimises distractions.
A good learning space has a table and chair, good lighting, good air flow, is away from distractions like television and noise, has good connectivity for digital devices, and is organised with the usual things students have at school such as pens, paper, calculator and others study materials.
Learning online is like being at school in that you need to be physically and mentally prepared to learn. One study suggests what you wear can affect your attention to a task. So it might help not to be in your pyjamas even if your study space is in your bedroom.
Students with good time management skills tend to do better academically.
There is no easy answer to how long students should be studying at home each day. Students should plan a study timetable dividing their day into learning, revision and rest blocks.
“Zoom fatigue” has been identified as an emerging problem with online studying and meetings caused by the different ways our brains process information delivered online. One suggestion is an online session should be no longer than 45 minutes with a 15-minute break.
Back-to-back sessions should be avoided and the time between sessions should be used to step away from the computer to rest your brain, body and eyes. It is important to stand up and move around every 30 minutes.
Students should work with teachers to revise their schedule each day and stick to what works for them.
Because students will be studying in an different space, they may get distracted by what other people are doing. If you can, share your study timetable with others in the house, and ask for their help to keep focused.
When you’re in a learning block of time, turn off social media and close browser tabs you don’t need. If you’re using the Google Chrome browser, it has an extension called Stay Focusd. Students can use this to set the period of time to block potential distractions like notifications from Instagram, Snapchat and other applications.
If you are sharing a digital device with other family members, try to agree on a roster that fits with everyone’s timetables. Work out who needs the device at specific times and put that time on a master timetable that is shared by everyone.
Our memories are not stable and we frequently overestimate how much we can remember. We forget at least 40% of new information within the first 24 hours of first reading or hearing it. That’s why it’s important to take notes.
The most important thing is to follow a good note-taking process. This involves:
writing an essential question that captures the key learning points of the topic
revising your notes. Use different colours and highlighters to make connections between chunks of information; add new ideas and write study questions in the margin. Compare notes with a study buddy to improve and learn from each other
writing a summary that links all the information together and answers the essential question you wrote down initially
revising your notes within 24 hours, seven days, and then each month until you are tested on that knowledge.
In the 1990s, American psychologist Carol Dweck developed the theory of the growth mindset.
It grew out of studies in which primary school children were engaged in a task, and then praised either for their existing capacities, such as intelligence, or the effort they invested in the task.
The students who were praised for their effort were more likely to persist with finding a solution to the task. They were also more likely to seek feedback about how to improve. Those praised for their intelligence were less likely to persist with the more difficult tasks and to seek feedback on how their peers did on the task.
The growth mindset assumes capacities can be developed or “grown” through learning and effort. So if you don’t understand something straight away, working at it will help you get there.
If you are engaging in negative self-talk, change the words. For example, instead of saying, “This is too hard”, try saying, “What haven’t I tried yet to figure this out?”
Ask teachers questions about anything that is unclear as soon as possible. Give teachers frequent feedback. Teachers appreciate suggestions that help improve student learning.
Set up online study groups. Learning is a social activity. We learn best by learning with others, and when learning is fun. Studying with friends helps clarify new concepts and language, and stay connected.
Museums, galleries and artist collectives around the world are shutting their doors and moving online in response to coronavirus. But engaging with audiences online requires access, skills and investment.
My research with remote Aboriginal art centres in the Northern Territory and community museums in Victoria shows moving to digital can widen the gap between urban and regional organisations.
Local spaces are vital. They ensure our national story is about more than the metropolitan, allowing artists to create – and audiences to engage with – local art and history. These art centres and museums bring communities together.
This cannot be replicated online.
Australia’s digital divide influences the ability of museums and galleries to move online, and the ability of audiences to find them there.
Cultural organisations that cannot produce digital content risk getting left behind. If we don’t support regional and rural organisations in their move online – or relieve them from this pressure entirely – we run the risk of losing them.
Community museums are critical in collecting, preserving and enabling access to local history. Across Victoria, these community organisations hold around 10 million items.
Aboriginal art centres produce some of Australia’s best contemporary art, generating A$53 million in sales between 2008 and 2012.
Digital platforms can make these contributions to our cultural life more accessible – particularly in these times of physical distancing. But artists in remote Aboriginal art centres and volunteer retirees running community museums are the most likely to experience digital disadvantage and the most likely to be left behind.
Australians are more likely to be digitally excluded when Indigenous, living in remote areas, or over the age of 65.
Over 30% of Indigenous artists practising out of art centres are over 55, and are most likely to be earning from their art over 65. These remote centres have poor access to web-capable devices and have low-quality internet connections.
Australia’s digital divide is not going away
The digital divide also exists for local audiences with access issues of their own.
Although most art centres and community museums have active websites and social media accounts, these are unlikely to be truly engaging or interactive.
Art centres tend to focus their digital platforms outside the community on commercial sales. Community museums focus on information about opening hours and events. They rarely have the expertise or capacity to create detailed online catalogues for audiences.
Digital inequality ensures barriers remain even for online collections. Regional and rural organisations are unlikely to have the specific skills, resourcing and devices to move fully online.
Under social distancing, cultural organisations that cannot produce digital content risk being left behind. This will disproportionately impact regional and rural organisations.
These organisations are critical for preserving the diversity of Australian stories. Aboriginal art centres and community museums provide spaces where the local is solidified. Communities are formed, documented, responded to and shared.
If these organisations cannot host the same web presence as major metropolitan institutions, even local audiences could divert their attention to the cities. Our local cultural organisations might go the way of our disappearing regional newspapers.
To survive the coming months, these organisations need targeted support to move online. Or a reprieve from the pressure to be completely digitally accessible: not all cultural consumption can happen online.
These physical community spaces will be more important than ever once social isolation rules are lifted.
The spread of the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 is a public health emergency with economic and social ramifications in China and across the world. While the impacts on business are well documented, education is also facing the largest disruption in recent memory.
Institutions around the world are responding to travel bans and quarantines with a shift to online learning. The crisis may trigger an online boom for education – or at least make us more ready to cope with the next emergency.
As many as 180 million Chinese students – primary, secondary and tertiary – are homebound or unable to travel. In China, the spring semester was originally scheduled to begin on February 17 but has now been postponed indefinitely. In response, Chinese institutions are attempting to switch to online education on a massive scale.
Effects of the epidemic are also being felt closer to home. Australian higher education is increasingly dependent on a steady flow of Chinese students, but the Australian government has restricted travel from China until at least 29 February. At the time of writing, thousands of students are still in limbo.
As a result, Australian higher education institutions are trying to boost their online capacity to deliver courses to stranded concerned students. Some universities – and some parts of universities – are better prepared than others. While all universities use online learning management systems and videoconferencing technology to some degree, there are no mandatory standards for online education.
This makes for a huge variety among institutions and even between individual courses in how digitised they are. To make this worse, not all staff are familiar with (or feel positive about) distance or blended learning.
Educational technology has historically struggled with large-scale adoption and much has been written about the cycles of boom and bust of the ed-tech industry. It may even be legitimate to ask whether adoption is a goal any longer for many in the industry.
Nowadays, a critical observer could be forgiven for thinking that the most successful ed-tech companies only pay lip service to mass adoption. Instead, their energies are firmly directed at the more remunerative game of (overinflated) start-up funding and selling.
Yet visions of mass adoption are still what drives the volatile dynamics of ed-tech financing. Investors ultimately hope that an innovation will, at some point in the near future, be used by large numbers of students and teachers.
In 2014 Michael Trucano, a World Bank specialist on education and technology policy, described the importance of “tipping points” to push educational technology into the mainstream. Trucano suggested that epidemics (he talked about the 2003 SARS epidemic, but the argument applies to COVID-19) could be “black swans”. The term is borrowed from the American thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who uses it to describe unanticipated events with profound consequences.
During the SARS outbreak, according to Trucano, China was forced into boosting alternative forms of distance education. This led to pockets of deeper, more transformational uses of online tools, at least temporarily. The long-term effects are still unclear.
The current landscape of global digital education suggests COVID-19 may result in more robust capabilities in regions with enough resources, connectivity and infrastructure. However, it is also likely to expose chronic deficiencies in less prepared communities, exacerbating pre-existing divides.
Investors appear to see this as a moment that could transform all kinds of online activity across the region. The stocks of Hong Kong-listed companies linked to online games, digital medical services, remote working and distance education have soared in recent days.
Adding to the complexity, students do not always welcome digital education, and research shows they are less likely to drop out when taught using “traditional” face-to-face methods.
Indeed, studies on the effectiveness of “virtual schools” have yielded mixed results. A recent study focusing on the US recommended virtual schools be restricted until the reasons for their poor performance are better understood.
Students may also oppose online learning because they perceive it as a sneaky attempt at forcing education down their throats. This may be what happened recently when DingTalk, a large Chinese messaging app, launched e-classes for schools affected by the coronavirus emergency. Unhappy students saw their forced vacation threatened and gave the app a bad rating on online stores in an attempt to drive it out of search results.
Perhaps this last story shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but it does highlight the importance of emotional responses in attempts to scale up an educational technology.
The importance of distance education in an increasingly uncertain world of global epidemics and other dramatic disruptions (such as wars and climate-related crises) is without doubt. So-called “developing countries” (including large rural regions in the booming Indian and Chinese economies) can benefit greatly from it, as it can help overcome emergencies and address chronic teacher shortages.
Once the current crisis passes, however, will things go “back to normal”? Or will we see a sustained increase in the mainstream adoption of online learning?
The answer is not at all obvious. Take Australia, for example. Even if we assume the COVID-19 emergency will lead to some permanent change in how more digitally-prepared Australian universities relate to Chinese students, it’s unclear what the change will look like.
Will we see more online courses and a growing market for Western-style distance education in Asia? Is this what the Chinese students (even the tech-savvy ones) really want? Is this what the Chinese economy needs?
Alternatively, perhaps, the crisis might lead to a more robust response system. Universities might develop the ability to move online quickly when they need to and go back to normal once things “blow over”, in a world where global emergencies look increasingly like the norm.
Paul Fletcher was recently appointed as Australia’s Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.
One of his stated priorities is to:
continue the Morrison Government’s work to make the internet a safer place for the millions of Australians who use it every day.
Addressing online racism is a vital part of this goal.
And not just because racism online is hurtful and damaging – which it is. This is also important because sometimes online racism spills into the real world with deadly consequences.
An Australian man brought up in the Australian cyber environment is the alleged murderer of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch. Planning and live streaming of the event took place on the internet, and across international boundaries.
We must critically assess how this happened, and be clearheaded and non-ideological about actions to reduce the likelihood of such an event happening again.
There are six steps Australia’s government can take.
Our government should remove its reservation on Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
In 1966 Australia declined to sign up to Article 4(a) of the ICERD. It was the only country that had signed the ICERD while deciding to file a reservation on Article 4(a). It’s this section that mandates the criminalisation of race hate speech and racist propaganda.
The ICERD entered into Australian law, minus Article 4(a), through the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).
Article 4 concerns, such as they were, would enter the law as “unlawful” harassment and intimidation, with no criminal sanctions, twenty years later. This occurred through the 1996 amendments that produced Section 18 of the RDA, with its right for complainants to seek civil solutions through the Human Rights Commission.
With Article 4 ratified, the criminal law could encompass the worst cases of online racism, and the police would have some framework to pursue the worst offenders.
Our government should extend Australia’s participation in the European cybercrime convention by adopting the First Additional Protocol.
In 2001 the Council of Europe opened the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime to signatories, establishing the first international instrument to address crimes committed over the internet. The add-on First Additional Protocol on criminalisation of acts of a racist and xenophobic nature came into effect in 2002.
Australia’s government – Labor at the time – initially considered including the First Additional Protocol in cyber crime legislation in 2009, and then withdrew it soon after. Without it, our country is limited in the way we collaborate with other country signatories in tracking down cross border cyber racism.
The Enhancing the Online Safety of Australians Act (until 2017 Enhancing the Online Safety of Children Act) established the eSafety Commissioner’s Office to pursue acts which undercut the safe use of the internet, especially through bullying.
The eSafety Act should be amended by Communications Minister Fletcher to extend the options for those harassed and intimidated, to include provisions similar to those found in NZ legislation. In effect this would mean people harassed online could take action themselves, or require the commissioner to act to protect them.
Such changes should be supported by staff able to speak the languages and operate in the cultural frames of those who are the most vulnerable to online race hate. These include Aboriginal Australians, Muslims, Jews and people of African and Asian descent.
Section 18C of the RDA, known as the racial vilification provisions, allows individuals offended or intimidated by online race hate to seek redress.
Rather than just leaving this dangling into the future, the government should commit itself to retaining 18C.
Even if this does happen, unless Article 4 of the (ICERD) is ratified as mentioned above, Australia will still have no effective laws that target online race-hate speech by pushing back against perpetrators.
Legislation introduced by the Australian government in April 2019 does make companies such as Facebook more accountable for hosting violent content online, but does not directly target perpetrators of race hate. It’s private online groups that can harbour and grow race hate hidden from the law.
Australia’s government should conduct a public review of best practice worldwide in relation to combating cyber racism. For example, it could plan for an options paper for public discussion by the end of 2020, and legislation where required in 2021.
European countries have now a good sense of how their protocol on cyber racism has worked. In particular, it facilitates inter-country collaboration, and empowers the police to pursue organised race hate speech as a criminal enterprise.
Other countries such as New Zealand and Canada, with whom we often compare ourselves, have moved far beyond the very limited action taken by Australia.
In conjunction with the states plus industry and civil society organisations, the Australian government should promote and resource “push back” against online racism. This can be addressed by reducing the online space in which racists currently pursue their goals of normalising racism.
Civil society groups such as the Online Hate Prevention Institute and All Together Now, and interventions like the currently stalled NSW Government program on Remove Hate from the Debate, are good examples of strategies that could achieve far more with sustained support from the federal government.
Such action characterises many European societies. Another good example is the World Wide Web Foundation (W3F)) in North America, whose #Fortheweb campaign highlights safety issues for web users facing harassment and intimidation through hate speech.
Speaking realistically, the aim through these mechanisms cannot be to “eliminate” racism, which has deep structural roots. Rather, our goal should be to contain racism, push it back into ever smaller pockets, target perpetrators and force publishers to be far more active in limiting their users’ impacts on vulnerable targets.
Without criminal provisions, infractions of civil law are essentially let “through to the keeper”. The main players know this very well.
Our government has a responsibility to ensure publishers and platforms know what the community standards are in Australia. Legislation and regulation should enshrine, promote and communicate these standards – otherwise the vulnerable remain unprotected, and the aggressors continue smirking.
Kogan Australia has grown from a garage to an online retail giant in a little more than a decade. Key to its success have been its discount prices.
But apparently not all of those discounts have been legit, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
The consumer watchdog has accused the home electronics and appliances retailer of misleading customers, by touting discounts on more than 600 items whose prices it had sneakily raised by at least the same percentage.
Kogan is yet to have its day in court, so we won’t dwell on its case specifically.
But the scenario does raise an interesting question. How effective are these types of price manipulation? After all, checking and comparing prices is dead easy online. So what could a retailer possibly gain?
Well, as it happens, potentially quite a lot.
Because consumers are human beings, our actions aren’t necessarily rational. We have strong emotional reactions to price signals. The sheer ubiquity of discounts demonstrate they must work.
Lets review a couple of findings from behavioural (and traditional) economics that help explain why discounting – both real and fake – is such an effective marketing ploy.
In standard economics, consumers are assumed to base their purchasing decisions on absolute prices. They make “rational” decisions, and the “framing” of the price does not matter.
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky challenged this assumption with their insights into consumer behaviour. Their best-known contribution to behavioural economics is “prospect theory” – a psychologically more realistic alternative to the classical theory of rational choice.
Kahneman and Tversky argued that behaviour is based on changes, which were relative. Framing a price as involving a discount therefore influences our perception of its value.
The prospect of buying something leads us to compare two different changes: the positive change in perceived value from taking ownership of a good (the gain); and the negative change experienced from handing over money (the loss). We buy if we perceive the gain to outweigh the loss.
Suppose you are looking to buy a toaster. You see one for $99. Another is $110, with a 10% discount – making it $99. Which one would you choose?
Evaluating the first toaster’s value to you is reasonably straightforward. You will consider the item’s attributes against other toasters and how much you like toast versus some other benefit you might attain for $99.
Standard economics says your emotional response involves weighing the loss of $99 against the gain of owning the toaster.
For the second toaster you might do all the same calculations about features and value for money. But behavioural economics tells us the discount will provoke a more complex emotional reaction than the first toaster.
Research shows most of us will tend to “segregate” the price from the discount; we will feel separately the emotion from the loss of spending $99 and the gain of “saving” $11.
Economist Richard Thaler demonstrated this in a study involving 87 undergraduate students at Cornell University. He quizzed them on a series of scenarios like the following:
Mr A’s car was damaged in a parking lot. He had to spend $200 to repair the damage. The same day the car was damaged, he won $25 in the office football pool.
Mr B’s car was damaged in a parking lot. He had to spend $175 to repair the damage.
Who was more upset?
Just five students said both would be equally upset, while 63 (more than 72%) said Mr B. Similar hypotheticals elicited equally emphatic results.
Economists now refer to this as the “silver lining effect” – segregating a small gain from a larger loss results in greater psychological value than integrating the gain into a smaller loss.
The result is we feel better handing over money for a discounted item than the same amount for a non-discounted item.
Another behavioural trick associated with discounts is creating a sense of urgency, by emphasising the discount period will end soon.
Again, the fact people typically evaluate prospects as changes from a reference point comes into play.
The seller’s strategy is to shift our reference points so we compare the current price with a higher price in the future. This makes not buying feel like a future loss. Since most humans are loss-averse, we may be nudged to avoid that loss by buying before the discount expires.
Expiry warnings also work through a second behavioural channel: anticipated regret.
Some of us are greatly influenced to behave according to whether we think we will regret it in the future.
Economic psychologist Marcel Zeelenberg and colleagues demonstrated this in experiments with students at the University of Amsterdam. Their conclusion: regret-aversion better explains choices than risk-aversion, because anticipation of regret can promote both risk-averse and risk-seeking choices.
Depending to what extent we have this trait, an expiry warning can compel us to buy now, in case we need that item in the future and will regret not having taken the opportunity to buy it when discounted.
Discounting is thus an effective strategy to get us to buy products we actually don’t need.
But what about the fact that it is so easy to compare prices online? Why doesn’t this fact nullify the two effects we’ve just discussed?
Here the standard economics of consumer search would agree that consumers might be misled despite being perfectly rational.
If a consumer judges a discount promotion is genuine, they have a tendency to assume it is less likely they will find a lower price elsewhere. This belief makes them less likely to continue searching.
In experiments on this topic, my colleague Changxia Ke and I have found a discernible “discount bias”. The effect is not necessarily large, depending on circumstances, but even a small nudge towards choosing a retailer with discounted items over another could end up being worth millions.
Once a consumer has made a decision and bought an item, they are even less likely to search for prices. They therefore may never learn a discount was fake.
There are entire industries where it is general practice to frame prices this way. Paradoxically, because this makes consumers search less for better deals, it allows all sellers to charge higher prices.
The bottom line: beware the emotional appeal of the discount. Whether real or fake, the human tendency is to overrate them.
With natural hazard and climate-related disasters on the rise, online tools such as crowdsourced mapping and social media can help people understand and respond to a crisis. They enable people to share their location and contribute information.
But are these tools useful for everyone, or are some people marginalised? It is vital these tools include information provided from all sections of a community at risk.
Current evidence suggests that is not always the case.
Social media played an important role in coordinating response to the 2019 Queensland floods and the 2013 Tasmania bushfires. Community members used Facebook to coordinate sharing of resources such as food and water.
Crowdsourced mapping helped in response to the humanitarian crisis after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Some of the most useful information came from public contributions.
Twitter provided similar critical insights during Hurricane Irma in South Florida in 2017.
In the rush to develop new disaster mitigation tools, it is important to consider whether they will help or harm the people most vulnerable in a disaster.
Extreme natural events, such as earthquakes and bushfires, are not considered disasters until vulnerable people are exposed to the hazard.
To determine people’s level of vulnerability we need to know:
Some groups in society will be more vulnerable to disaster than others. This includes people with immobility issues, caring roles, or limited access to resources such as money, information or support networks.
When disaster strikes, the pressure on some groups is often magnified.
The devastating scenes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 revealed the vulnerability of children in such disasters.
Unfortunately, emergency management can exacerbate the vulnerability of marginalised groups. For example, a US study last year showed that in the years after disasters, wealth increased for white people and declined for people of colour. The authors suggest this is linked to inequitable distribution of emergency and redevelopment aid.
We need to ask: do new forms of disaster response help everyone in a community, or do they reproduce existing power imbalances?
These technologies inherently discriminate if access to them discriminates.
Lower digital inclusion is seen in already vulnerable groups, including the unemployed, migrants and the elderly.
Global internet penetration rates show uneven access between economically poorer parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, and wealthier Western regions.
Representations of communities are skewed on the internet. Particular groups participate with varying degrees on social media and in crowdsourcing activities. For example, some ethnic minorities have poorer internet access than other groups even in the same country.
Research shows participation biases in community mapping activities towards older, more affluent men.
Persecuted minorities, including LGBTIQ communities and religious minorities, are often more vulnerable in disasters. Digital technologies, which expose people’s identities and fail to protect privacy, might increase that vulnerability.
Unequal participation means those who can participate may become further empowered, with more access to information and resources. As a result, gaps between privileged and marginalised people grow wider.
For example, local Kreyòl-speaking Haitians from poorer neighbourhoods contributed information via SMS for use on crowdsourced maps during the 2010 Haiti earthquake response.
But the information was translated and mapped in English for Western humanitarians. As they didn’t speak English, vulnerable Haitians were further marginalised by being unable to directly use and benefit from maps resulting from their own contributions.
Any power imbalances that come from unequal online participation are pertinent to disaster risk reduction. They can amplify community tensions, social divides and marginalisation, and exacerbate vulnerability and risk.
With greater access to the benefits of online tools, and improved representation of diverse and marginalised people, we can better understand societies and reduce disaster impacts.
We must remain acutely aware of digital divides and participation biases. We must continually consider how these technologies can better include, value and elevate marginalised groups.
Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer in GIS and Disaster Management, University of Manchester; Christine Eriksen, Senior Lecturer in Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong, and Scott McKinnon, Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Wollongong
This week saw the closure of Google+, an attempt by the online giant to create a social media community to rival Facebook.
If the Australian usage of Google+ is anything to go by – just 45,000 users in March compared to Facebook’s 15 million – it never really caught on.
But the Google+ shutdown follows a string of organisations that have disabled or restricted community features such as reviews, user comments and message boards (forums).
So are we witnessing the decline of online communities and user comments?
One of the most well-known message boards – which existed on the popular movie website IMDb since 2001 – was shut down by owner Amazon in 2017 with just two weeks’ notice for its users.
This is not only confined to online communities but mirrors a trend among organisations to restrict or turn off their user-generated content. Last year the subscription video-on-demand website Netflix said it no longer allowed users to write reviews. It subsequently deleted all existing user-generated reviews.
Organisations have a range of motivations for taking such actions, ranging from low uptake, running costs, the challenges of managing moderation, as well as the problem around divisive comments, conflicts and lack of community cohesion.
NPR explained its motivation to remove user comments by highlighting how in one month its website NPR.org attracted 33 million unique users and 491,000 comments. But those comments came from just 19,400 commenters; the number of commenters who posted in consecutive months was a fraction of that.
We’ve reached the point where we’ve realized that there are other, better ways to achieve the same kind of community discussion around the issues we raise in our journalism.
Likewise, The Atlantic explained that its comments sections had become “unhelpful, even destructive, conversations” and was exploring new ways to give users a voice.
In the case of IMDB closing its message boards in 2017, the reason given was:
[…] we have concluded that IMDb’s message boards are no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.
The organisation also nudged users towards other forms of social media, such as its Facebook page and Twitter account @IMDB, as the “(…) primary place they (users) choose to post comments and communicate with IMDb’s editors and one another”.
Unsurprisingly, such actions often lead to confusion, criticism and disengagement by user communities, and in some cases petitions to have the features reinstated (such as this one for Google+) and boycotts of the organisations.
But most organisations take these aspects into their decision-making.
For fans of such community features these trends point to some harsh realities. Even though communities may self-organise and thrive, and users are co-creators of value and content, the functionality and governance are typically beyond their control.
Community members are at the mercy of hosting organisations, some profit-driven, which may have conflicting motivations to those of the users. It’s those organisations that hold the power to change or shut down what can be considered by some to be critical sources of knowledge, engagement and community building.
In the aftermath of shutdowns, my research shows that communities that existed on an organisation’s message boards in particular may struggle to reform.
This can be due to a number of factors, such as high switching costs, and communities can become fragmented because of the range of other options (Reddit, Facebook and other message boards).
So it’s difficult for users to preserve and maintain their communities once their original home is disabled. In the case of Google+, even its Mass Migration Group – which aims to help people, organisations and groups find “new online homes” – may not be enough to hold its online communities together.
The trend towards the closure of online communities by organisations might represent a means to reduce their costs in light of declining usage and the availability of other online options.
It’s also a move away from dealing with the reputational issues related to their use and controlling the conversation that takes place within their user bases. Trolling, conflicts and divisive comments are common in online communities and user comments spaces.
But within online groups there often exists social and network capital, as well as the stock of valuable knowledge that such community features create.
Often these communities are made of communities of practice (people with a shared passion or concern) on topics ranging from movie theories to parenting.
They are go-to sources for users where meaningful interactions take place and bonds are created. User comments also allow people to engage with important events and debates, and can be cathartic.
Closing these spaces risks not only a loss of user community bases, but also a loss of this valuable community knowledge on a range of issues.
The obvious culprit, and the one identified by many analysts, is online shopping.
As one industry analyst explained: “The physical department store footprint is likely to continue to shrink as online sales penetration increases further.”
Online shopping is certainly a factor, but it is not the primary reason for Big W’s troubles.
Though online shopping in the department and variety stores category is growing fast (by 29.6% in 2018 according to the NAB Online Retail Sales Index, the total amount of money spent online by Australian shoppers – A$28.8 billion – is still only about about 9% of what is spent in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores.
More important to Big W’s woes is the growth of the so-called category killers, which are disrupting the entire discount department store business model. It a threat to which Big W has failed to respond with the same agility of rival Kmart.
If you’re old enough you may remember getting your wall paint mixed in the Big W hardware department, or buying car accessories from its automotive department. There was also a large “sight and sound” department filled with televisions, sound systems, videos and CDs. Discount department stores truly lived up to the idea of a variety store.
But the profitability of all these market segments for department stores has been eroded by the growth of “category killers” – retailers specialising in the same product categories.
Examples include Office Works for office supplies, Rebel for sports equipment, JB Hi-Fi for audiovisual, Super Cheap Auto for car parts, and Bunnings for hardware. All have taken market share from the discounters. These stores compete on price and have superior range, and shoppers trust the expertise of staff working in a specialist shop.
The popularity of category killers explains in large part the stagnant sales and talk of store closures throughout the department store segment.
Harris Scarfe and Best and Less are reportedly struggling. The Reject Shop’s net profit for the first half fell from an expected A$17 million to less than A$11 million.
David Jones’ half-year profit fell 39% to A$36 million. Myer reported a 2.8% drop in total sales for the same time frame.
Wesfarmers expects earnings from its department store brands Kmart and Target to fall about 8% this financial year. Eight Target stores closed during the first half of the financial year, with another six closures expected by the end of June.
Kmart is considered Australia’s discount department store “darling”. A decade ago it was on life support. Under the direction of chief executive Guy Russo it doubled it profits by 2015.
A key to the turnaround was recognition it needed to quickly reduce or exit categories it could not compete in, such as hardware, automotive, fishing, consumer electronics and sporting goods. It has turned to homeware, soft furnishings, manchester and kitchenware.
There appears no such swiftness in Big W’s moves.
Big W’s chief executive from January to November 2016, Sally MacDonald, reportedly wanted to closes stores and make other major changes but was thwarted by the board of Woolworths Group, owner of Big W.
Such differences in strategic vision explain why MacDonald left the role within the year.
This process of “right-sizing” therefore seems long overdue. To what extent it makes Woolworths a sustainable business, however, will depend on future response to changing circumstances.
What is certain is that discount department stores aren’t what they used to be; and if they want to be around in future, they probably can’t be what they are now.