Course explores pandemic info flow in real time

Special to Western News

Taught by Library and Information Science doctoral student Sam Vander Kooy, who co-developed the course, Information in Disasters and Pandemics examines historical outbreaks of diseases such Ebola, SARS, and MERS that provide context to the current situation.

Master of Library and Information Science students will examine the role information plays during disasters and pandemics, all within a summer course taking place during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Organizers say the course – LIS 9377 – Information in Disasters and Pandemics – is a fascinating opportunity to analyze a phenomenon as it happens, all while getting a bit of control back.

“I tend to want to tackle or take on things that intimidate me. I’m not gonna lie, I feel intimidated and anxious right now,” said Information and Media Studies professor Heather Hill. “I think many of our students likely feel the same way. Here is an opportunity to analyze and examine something as it is happening to us.”

Team-taught by Hill and Library and Information Science doctoral student Sam Vander Kooy, who developed the course together, the topics include examining historical outbreaks of diseases such Ebola, SARS, and MERS that provide context to the current situation. Students will take a deep dive into the terminology of disasters and pandemics, exploring the many ways that information plays a role in society’s response to such an event.

“The sheer deluge of information being disseminated right now about COVID-19 is overwhelming. It is mix of informative, changing, contradictory and misinformation. Wading through this as it happens will provide a rare learning experience,” Hill said.

Readings and class discussions will revolve around what information is being shared and through which outlets. Students will look at the strategies of both domestic and international governments in communicating about the crisis, as well as the responses from community groups like doomsday preppers or the ‘caremongering’ movement.

Vander Kooy expects to use recent examples of crisis situations in Canada to look at how information flow is vital to the eventual outcome. He notes that without robust communication channels between emergency responders, government officials, stakeholders, and the public, disasters become much harder to respond to, manage, and recover from.

“This is particularly true of health-related disasters. In a disaster, the speed at which information travels can be the difference between life and death,” he said.

Vander Kooy points to the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., as an example of the critical need to maintain information flow during a disaster.

He describes how after 90,000 residents were ordered to evacuate the town, telephone systems collapsed, websites failed, and radio stations went off the air. “Social media became the best alternative to maintain communications with the affected area as well as create a communications lifeline for those impacted by the fire,” he said.

For the summer term, the course will be offered as a special elective for MLIS students. Hill believes the subject likely has wider appeal throughout Western. As such, the course will be open to a limited number of both non-librarianship Faculty of Information and Media Studies students and graduate students from other faculties on campus.

Hill knows that society’s analysis of information’s role in the coronavirus pandemic will be a lengthy process.

“We will be studying responses and information dissemination related to COVID-19 for a long time to come,” Hill said.