Public Making Friday, June 8th, 2018

Designing for Public Health Emergencies: A Case Study

Maribeth Kradel-Weitzel, Associate Professor, Jefferson University
Elizabeth Shirrell, Assistant Professor, Jefferson University
Renée Walker, Assistant Professor, Jefferson University

Partnering with the Phila. Dept. of Public Health, student teams created systematic solutions for heat emergency preparedness/resilience for at risk citizens.

2016 was the hottest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880. Exposure to extreme heat can cause human suffering in the form of potentially deadly heat exhaustion and heat stroke. High temperatures are the leading weather-related cause of death in the US, despite the possibility for prevention through outreach or preparedness. In Fall 2017, the senior graphic design communication students (26 students, 3 faculty) collaborated with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health for a semester long team-based project on heat emergency preparedness and resilience within Philadelphia.

Heat emergency preparedness and resilience in Philadelphia was a worthy topic because it met several qualifications:

• It required students to conduct extensive primary and secondary research on an unfamiliar topic.
• The topic was complex and presented multiple opportunities for design intervention.
• The assignment required students to investigate a wide range of technologies, environments and modes of communication.
• This issue involved a diverse collection of stakeholders with varying concerns.
• The topic supported the development of a systematic approach to problem solving.
• The focus on a local audience allowed students to conduct extensive user-centered research techniques.
• We had connections to topic experts who could supplement the faculty’s process expertise.

The ability to conduct primary user-testing was critical in making a topic selection. Students take a freshman foundational course in design thinking, and the curriculum seeks to reinforce that learning throughout. Our topic experts and secondary research helped the students to identify vulnerable populations and potential modes of engagement. However, it was critical that students conduct their own primary research in order to set appropriate goals for dealing with a very specific culture. Students did observational research, surveys, interviews, contextual inquiry, prototype testing and more to aid them in making informed decisions.

In framing the project with our client, we came to several key agreements about expectations. We worked with the client to present the students with a broadly defined area of focus and were careful not to require narrowly defined deliverables. This allowed students to create work that was research-driven and responded to their own opportunity definition process. We also worked with the client to cultivate a mind-set that would embrace work that was speculative in nature. This allowed students to consider technologies that might not quite exist yet, a financial model that was not currently a part of the Philadelphia Department of Health’s budgetary framework and hypothetical partnerships with outside organizations.

This process resulted in a wide range of solutions from the students. Some students chose to focus on concepts for the elderly and homebound populations and developed new technology proposals to aid in communication with caregivers. Another group of students focused on transportation safety during heat emergencies and created a new system of support for free transportation and the communication of availability and directions to cooling centers. A third group proposed cost-effective heat emergency preparedness kits supported by a new volunteer-based communications team. A total of eight groups working on the project all created unique, research-driven concepts that were well received by the client.