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Wednesday, 18 April 2018 17:44

Rebuild or Re-Imagine: What Do Citizens Want in the Aftermath of Disaster?

Written by  CHRIS ASTLE

We continue to watch in horror as recent natural disasters wreak devastation throughout the Western Hemisphere. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria left a swath of destruction from Houston to Florida and across the Caribbean. In Northern California, wildfires continue to pose a dangerous threat. And large areas of Mexico are still reeling from recent earthquakes.

As a result, entire cities were left under water. Roads, bridges and buildings were destroyed or damaged. Electricity and water systems failed. And today, key infrastructure for countless citizens remains in ruins.

Clearly, attention must first be given to the urgent survival needs, but once immediate concerns are managed, leaders have the agonizing and expensive job of rebuilding. In our hyper-connected age, this challenge will not only come with countless questions, but thousands of opinions from communities, businesses and citizens.

What are city, county and state governments to do? One of the most critical questions will be: Should we rebuild what was destroyed, or should we completely re-imagine and re-design how these cities and neighborhoods function? In the aftermath of a natural disaster, civic leaders have a responsibility to ensure that renewal efforts involve the citizens who live and work in the community. But how can citizens gain a voice in how the reconstruction effort is undertaken?

The answer is to actually listen to those voices.

So often, citizen opinions on pressing issues is recruited – and then summarily ignored. Why? Because civic leaders understand facts and figures, yet struggle to comprehend how to use subjective feedback to inform policy decisions. Today, new technology can ensure that community opinions are not only recruited – but are actually heard, listened to and acted upon.

The New Zealand community of Christchurch offers a revealing example of how this technology can be utilized. Struck by a series of earthquakes, Christchurch experienced extensive destruction that left the city reeling from more than 1,500 buildings completely or partially destroyed. City leaders faced the difficult task of determining how to rebuild.

The easiest solution would have been to recreate exactly what was destroyed. But municipal leaders envisioned a greater future for their city – and they wanted citizens to help create that vision. Once the basic needs of renewal were identified, leaders sought input from the community on how to re-imagine the second most-populous New Zealand city. Through focus groups, surveys and community conversations, leaders solicited opinions from across the city.

Leaders needed a fast way to turn these constituent voices into knowledge. They discovered it by utilizing innovative software that helped integrate qualitative data (or “human” data, such as citizen sentiments) with fact-based quantitative data (such as number of buildings destroyed, miles of highways washed out, etc.). This software allowed city leaders to easily see the intersections between how citizens felt about reconstruction and specific infrastructure needs that had to be managed.

Qualitative data analysis software makes it easier and much faster to examine large quantities of text from survey responses, social media comments, letters or just about any way a constituent might communicate. The software can be used to identify themes among written responses that reveal trends among citizen sentiments. What’s more, the software can cross-reference these insights with demographic and other numerical data. Conducting this type of detailed examination manually would require hundreds (or thousands) of hours of work – so it’s no wonder that so much qualitative data collected is never put to use. So very often, written feedback direct from the citizen’s voice is simply ignored.

In the Christchurch research, citizen feedback came in all forms: email messages, letters, survey comments, focus group feedback, photographs, drawings and even a LEGO-constructed depiction of the city. In the end, leaders discovered that citizens wanted a newly revitalized community that enhanced their quality of life, provided more opportunities for outdoor recreation and created a renewed sense of “place.” The analysis provided a clearer examination of how city residents felt – and it transformed the future of the city.

Using this human data-infused analysis, city leaders developed a comprehensive Christchurch Central Recovery Plan. As a result, the city experienced massive residential growth and renewed vitality. More than 50,000 new homes have been constructed and a plan to improve public spaces within the central city is underway. What’s more, the use of citizen input created a model for community revitalization following natural disasters.

Human data is complex and nuanced. Analyzing human data can be laborious, time consuming and costly. But leaders grappling with these reconstruction issues in the coming months would be wise to consider the Christchurch example.

The future of their communities may well depend on it.

About Chris Astle:

AstleChris Astle is CEO of QSR International, a leading global qualitative data analysis software provider, with products NVivo and Interpris. Learn more at www.qsrinternational.com.