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Turning disasters into PhD success


Marion Tan

Dr Marion Tan at home during the COVID-19 lockdown.


International PhD graduate Dr Marion Tan began researching disaster response after Typhoon Haiyan devastated her home country, the Philippines. Now, after completing a doctoral degree in emergency management at Massey University, she says it’s “poetic” to be graduating in the middle of a global pandemic.

Dr Tan, who was awarded two scholarships to complete the research, looked at the use of mobile applications for disaster preparedness and response. Her research showed that while many disaster apps are available on the market, they are only effective if people find them usable.

“I wasn't in the Philippines at the time of the typhoon, and that's where I got the idea,  because I really wanted to know what was going on. Being in a foreign country and not really knowing a lot, you rely on technological tools to know what's happening on the ground. That's what got me thinking about technological tools that can help us communicate during disasters. 

“After the typhoon, I got a few more research grants, not on technology, but related to the typhoon, and that set me on my research path to do research related to disasters,” she says.

She saw there was a PhD in emergency management at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research (JCDR) in Wellington and decided to make the move to New Zealand.

Her research was conducted through collecting and analysing data from app stores, questionnaires, usability inquiries, and focus group discussions. She found there are five usability factors that influence how likely an app is to be used: utility, dependability, input (how users control their own information on the app), output (how information is presented to the users), and graphics.

“Graphics have to be quite simple – less is better. A lot of my interviewees said they don't want the bells and whistles, they just want the information. It might seem counterintuitive when we have a lot of apps that are beautiful, but for an app that communicates information regarding disasters, it has to be quite straightforward.”

Quality, not quantity


There is a glut of disaster apps available, but they don’t get used, says Dr Tan. “There are hundreds of disaster apps out there and the problem with them is that they're not really being used. When you download them they're quite clunky and have a very top-down approach that looks like a policy document and isn't very user friendly. That's what stirred my research: how do we get people to continue using apps? If we have some control in designing the usability of apps, how does this affect a user’s decision to use them?”

Dr Tan developed usability guidelines to encourage the responsible design of disaster apps, which can be used in the development of new apps. Despite a pandemic having different characteristics to an earthquake or a flood, she says any design of the COVID-19 tracing app should follow the same principles as her research.

“If people download the app and find it really bad in terms of its interface, they might decide to uninstall it. Make it usable – the more people that are on it, the better tracking will be.”

Dr Tan says she’s enjoyed studying at Massey and now works at the research centre as a research officer. 

“It's been a great experience. A PhD is a challenging experience, but with the JCDR I felt really supported. I was able to do work that's applied and important. We had connections with people in the industry and got to talk about the research on the ground. For our area of research, it's quite important. 

Graduating in lockdown has been challenging. “It's strange to be graduating. I defended my PhD the Friday before lockdown started and I received my completion during lockdown Level 4. There was so much happening that it was really hard to take it in that I'm actually done.

“I'm quite happy [to graduate] and at least I can say I finished my PhD during a pandemic. As someone who studies disaster management, it's quite poetic,” she says. 

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