How the UO Combined Public Forum and Interactive Technology to Deepen Engagement

by Lathen Gorbett


Don’t Wait for the Quake was a community event hosted by the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). The event was held at the University of Oregon’s Portland campus and focused on the importance of earthquake preparedness in the Pacific Northwest. Don’t Wait for the Quake featured a panel of earthquake and emergency preparedness experts as well as informational videos produced by students from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC). Throughout the program, the audience reacted in real time through an audience engagement tool called HARVIS, allowing the video producers to understand how their content was being received. The project was led by University of Oregon SOJC professor Ed Madison.


Project Goals: There were three main objectives for the Don’t Wait for the Quake forum. The first was also perhaps the most obvious: to help educate the Oregon public on the importance of being prepared for the very real possibility of experiencing a cataclysmic earthquake in the near future, according to Madison. “Everyone talks about earthquakes in California, but people don’t realize that right here in the Pacific Northwest that’s been dormant but is due to [become active] again,” he said, referencing the New Yorker article that inspired the project. The second was to utilize multimedia tools to encourage a more participatory experience for both the producers and the affected community. By using tools like HARVIS and simulcasting the event online and over the radio via OPB, the forum aimed to engage with the local community in a way that wouldn’t be possible through a traditional forum or news story alone. As a bonus, the inclusion of diverse avenues for interaction and delivery methods allowed for a larger audience than might otherwise be reached. Third and finally, this event was also an opportunity to showcase the talents of University of Oregon SOJC students. Reporting on and producing content around the issue for the forum gave the students a real-world opportunity to develop and improve their multimedia storytelling skills. The forum provided them both a chance to report on an important, potentially life-or-death scenario facing their community while also giving them an opportunity to get their work recognized.

Tools and Technology: The project used video production, editing, and message delivery technology provided by the University of Oregon and OPB. Finally, during the forum, the HARVIS mobile app was used to measure audience engagement in real time. The HARVIS app works by connecting videos or other multimedia content to a real-time feedback platform. After they’ve paired their app with the media they’re currently interacting with, users of the app are able to “sweep” the surface of their mobile device to express their responses to the linked media content as it happens. There are also moments in the video or presentation where a brief pause gives the audience time to answer a targeted question or set of questions. All of this information is compiled and displayed in real time and provides feedback to the audience as well as the producers. This data can also be stored for later analysis. The app was developed by former New York Times Multimedia Editor and current University of Oregon SOJC Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement chair Andrew DeVigal.

Impact: According to results listed on the project website, 194 attendees used the HARVIS app. Of those, approximately two-thirds (63.2%) of Harvis users at the event identified as “Concerned Citizens,” while the rest of the audience identified as “Community Organizer or Leader” “Counselor,” “ Educator,” “First Responder,” “State or Local Public Servant,” “Student,” or “Other” respectively. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the University of Oregon was the host and lead producer of the event, “Students” (13.5%) and “Educators” (8.3%) together made up the second largest group. Additionally, 70.5% of app users were from the Portland metropolitan area, once again somewhat unsurprisingly given the fact that the forum was hosted at the University of Oregon’s Portland campus. The second largest group at 13.9% came from the broader Willamette Valley / Western Oregon, a region which contains the bulk of the state’s population and the University of Oregon’s flagship campus in Eugene. In regards to measuring the impact the project had on its intended audience, forum organizers were tracking specific data. Specifically, they were looking for evidence of increased levels of preparedness and action among respondents, according to Madison. “We were looking for things like whether people were more likely to purchase or prepare disaster kits after attending,” he explained. However, much of their data came from HARVIS, which could see fluctuations in levels of engagement between different multimedia presentations or even between different points within the same presentation. For example, according to the project website, results showed that the audience had “an increase in the feeling of preparedness” after watching the videos, but that “the percent change was difficult to quantify” due to varying degrees of engagement on a couple of the questions. For this reason, results were often open to individual interpretation. Nevertheless, Madison described the project as an unambiguous success, a finding mirrored by outside organizations. “We had an independent evaluator conduct an evaluation of the project,” Madison said, noting that based on the results of the evaluation that they had met and achieved all of the project’s objectives.

Organization Background: The School of Journalism and Communication is one of the primary colleges at the University of Oregon, a Tier 1 Association of American Universities (AAU) national public research university. While the SOJC is headquartered at the Eugene campus of the University of Oregon, the school also has a significant presence at the Portland campus in the form of the George S. Turnbull Center and the Agora Journalism Center. Oregon Public Broadcasting is the primary public broadcast media outlet for Oregon and southern Washington, and is headquartered in Portland, Oregon. In addition to regional content, OPB also airs programs from national public media organizations such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).

Project Resources: The University of Oregon received a $35,000 micro-grant from the Online News Association (ONA) Innovation in Journalism Education Challenge Fund. Additionally, OPB provided equipment, professional, and technical support to the project, and a professional Los Angeles production team familiar with Madison’s work provided additional assistance.

Here’s how it happened

A New Yorker article entitled The Really Big One was published on July 20, 2015. In it, the author made this statement: “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” Despite the imminent threat outlined in the article, and despite the widespread attention the article received throughout the Pacific Northwest, few Oregonians have taken the earthquake seriously enough to actually plan and prepare for such a disaster. Seeing the potential to both engage and inform the public on a critical topic and provide student journalists an opportunity to hone their skills in a professional environment, Madison decided to apply for an ONA grant to support the project. “It was a good way to get funding for the project, and it was a good experiment,” Madison said about the ONA grant. “It allowed the [University of Oregon] to work with a professional news entity—in this case, OPB.”

Madison also added that the University of Oregon had an existing positive relationship with OPB through other collaborative projects such as NW Stories, so it was a natural fit. However, with Don’t Wait for the Quake, he wanted to go beyond what had done before and try something new. “My thoughts were, ‘How do we do something that’s fundable and a little bit different and off the spectrum of what’s predictable,” Madison said.

His approach paid off, and ONA approved his application. He received $35,000 in project funding as part of the organization’s ongoing “Hack the Curriculum” challenge, which is intended to help foster relationships between journalism schools and mainstream news organizations that lead to opportunities for enhanced experiential learning. Don’t Wait for the Quake quickly took shape soon after.

In order to best assess how the Pacific Northwest might prepare for a massive earthquake, it was decided that students should travel to areas that had suffered massive earthquakes of their own in recent history and document the aftermath. In one case, in order to prepare and produce a video presented at the event entitled Lessons From California and Nepal, students from the UO traveled to Nepal to report on the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. The seismic disaster in Nepal, which killed more than 8,000 people in April of 2015, had some striking parallels with the seismic event that the Pacific Northwest could soon face. Though there were obvious differences between Oregon and Nepal, such as different levels of infrastructure and economic development, there were also valuable lessons to be learned from the devastation in South-Central Asia. It was especially timely, given that it happened only months before the “Don’t Wait for the Quake” event.

The event was held at University of Oregon – Portland’s White Stag campus building. It was produced and organized by a team of the School of Journalism’s student producers with assistance, support from OPB and a freelance production crew. This support included event hosting by Dave Miller, who also hosts the popular OPB radio program Think Out Loud.

Here’s what worked

1. Live interaction and feedback

In addition to traditional user feedback and impact measurements, the use of tech tools such as HARVIS allowed for more in-depth and concrete findings on the effectiveness of the project. According to a MediaShift article on the results, participants expressed their intention to “set up earthquake warning systems,” to “have neighborhoods create earthquake preparation associations for their area,” and to “require property owners to provide funding to make earthquake-proof buildings.” Others committed to “gather plenty of supplies in order to properly act afterward,” to “meet with neighbors to plan,” and to “identify skill sets within [their] neighborhood/city block and assign roles.”

2. Collaboration between students and professionals

Student producers had the chance to work with professional journalists from OPB, giving them an opportunity to have their work presented not only to in-person attendees of the event but also to OPB’s state-wide audience through its own distribution platforms. Meanwhile, OPB was able to use the event and its accompanying student work to further inform the general public about disaster preparation, in line with its mission as a public broadcaster.

3. Advanced planning

Planning for the event started almost a year in advance, allowing the “Don’t Wait for the Quake” team plenty of time to prepare for the technical and production-related challenges of an event of this type and scale. It also gave them plenty of time to spot and overcome unexpected hurdles, such as venue closures.

Here’s what could work have worked better

1. Be prepared to improvise

According to Madison, the original plan was to hold the event at OPB’s Portland studio, but it happened to be under construction at the time, so they had to turn a conference hall space at the University of Oregon – Portland campus into a studio instead.

“When you’re in a studio that’s completely pre-wired and working with people who have worked together before for a live production, that’s a little safer,” Madison said, adding that his nerves were on edge throughout. Despite this setback, however, he felt that the project rose to the challenge and overcame it—but only because they were willing and able to improvise.

2. When scheduling live events, be conscious of the weather—even if it’s an indoor event

Another complication was the weather. The event ended up falling during some particularly bad weather, and according to Madison, the turnout was a bit depressed as a result. Though their numbers were still fine, he felt that more people would have participated if the weather had been more cooperative. Though obviously not always feasible, when possible live events—even indoor events—should be scheduled with the weather in mind.

Here’s what else you should know

  • Comfort Matters: Despite inclement weather and heavy traffic en route, attendees of the event were greeted with comfortable seats, hot coffee, and even some impromptu stand-up humor from one of the student producers. The result? A more relaxed, happy, and focused event.

  • It’s okay for experiments to only happen once: Despite the success of the event, Madison isn’t sure a repeat performance would be possible. He noted that while elements of this project might be applicable to others like it, many elements of its success were unique to this project and its subject matter in particular. “I’m not sure I’d jump into something like it again,” Madison said. “I think this was one of those sorts of things where our timing was right and we got lucky. There were all sorts of things that could have gone wrong.”

Learn More

To learn more about this project, send Ed Madison an email, say hi on Twitter, or visit the project website.

Tags: , , , ,