Population Health

February 28, 2024

Utilizing drones to incorporate youth perspectives in disaster planning

Tsunami evacuation sign that is posted by a body of waterThe same geologic forces that shaped Washington State hold the potential to devastate the Pacific Northwest, which necessitates thorough disaster planning to prepare the region to mitigate, respond to and recover from future catastrophes. At the same time, structural barriers continually lead to significant gaps in knowledge of how to prepare for disasters, with the perspectives of youth populations often being forgotten. To empower these overlooked voices, Matias Korfmacher, a Master’s in Public Health and Master’s in Urban Planning candidate at the University of Washington, is piloting a novel photovoice methodology to incorporate youth perspectives in disaster planning.

Funded by a Tier 1 Population Health Initiative pilot grant, Korfmacher and his research team — Drs. Nicole Errett, Daniel Abramson and Resham Patel — are partnering on a collaborative research project with the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) club at Ocosta Junior-Senior High School. The STEAM club students will fly drones around Westport, Washington, with guidance from the research team, and identify community assets, defined as places, spaces and structures that provide something important to the community, which help the youth feel at home or connected to their community and place.

“About 98% of [Westport’s] developed land is in the tsunami inundation zone, which means when a tsunami hits, almost all of that infrastructure is going to be underwater,” explained Korfmacher. “When that tsunami comes, there will be a lot of rebuilding. For this to happen, we need to incorporate the areas that are important to youths in that process.”

The team’s initial work is focused on building relationships with Ocosta’s STEAM club and co-creating thought exercises to better prepare for the drone flying process. “We want to get them thinking about what buildings, what places, what spaces are important to them,” said Korfmacher. After these exercises are completed, the students will then fly drones to capture images and videos of the identified community assets.

The utilization of aerial vehicles in the field of research is still a fairly new concept but shows promise as a data collection tool. “We’re piloting a novel photovoice methodology. We can’t find any other work where you equip community members with drones. No one’s really done this before,” emphasized Korfmacher.

The incorporation of drones into natural hazard planning also offers a critical aerial perspective that can aid in disaster management strategies. “A lot of hazard disaster planning is done on maps with different sort of layers. With this top-down view, it becomes really easy to integrate these kinds of perspectives and images with existing planning,” explained Korfmacher.

After the images and videos of Westport are captured, students will participate in focus groups and discuss the community assets captured in the imagery, which will be transcribed and analyzed to identify common themes. These findings will be disseminated via three outputs: a shareable geonarrative of important places/spaces, recommendations to help inform city planning, such as the development of the city’s emergency response plan and then a protocol to conduct drone-based photovoice. The geonarrative will feature a narrative analysis created by the STEAM club members overlaid on a 3D interactive map that can be shared with other community partners.

“This research is motivated by the fact that disruptions to place, especially traumatic disruptions, have really profound psychosocial health impacts. That is especially true among youth who rely on a sense of place to build their own personal identity,” said Korfmacher. “Figuring out the places and spaces that make them feel connected is going to be important to restore and help them bounce back, post-disaster.”

Ultimately, Korfmacher wants to recognize the collaborative nature of this project and give thanks to the community partners involved. “We see this project as bringing us closer into the community and laying the foundations for future, broader community participation” said Korfmacher. “It’s a really exciting project to be a part of. I’m grateful for all these connections and look forward to flying the drones with these kids. They’re all really motivated and that’s not something you always get with a community group.”