First Impressions: Press Review March 2013

Welcome to our monthly internal press review, featuring the latest publications by UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance: from working papers to policy reports to entire books.

Our March output includes 10 working papers, four journal articles, two PhD theses, and two research reports for the European Commission and United Nations Development Programme. For innovation, topics range from the aerospace industry, to nanotechnology, to R&D patents and productivity. For governance, we look into urban sustainability, economic vulnerability, and communities of learning. Geographically, the focus spreads from Latin America, through Europe and the Arab world, via Singapore to China, drawing on real-world data from more than 160 countries.

Students from the Khan Younis Training Centre in Gaza, run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), test drive a Formula 1-style car they have built, mostly out of recycled parts. Continue reading

New Blog on Digital Research Methods: ‘SHARE-IT’

In December 2011 we won a ‘Leading in Learning’ grant of €10,000 to develop a blog on digital research methods. It was launched in April 2012 and is called: ‘Support & Help for Academic REsearchers by using Information Technology’ (SHARE-IT).

Our blog presents knowledge and experience in IT-based ways of doing research. This ranges from the use of online forums for discussing research results to the use of Google for searching for literature; from online reference managers to ways of keeping track of current developments online. Overall SHARE-IT provides short, accessible and critical discussions of such online tricks and tools.

Posts will be written by and for early career researchers. So if YOU’RE a researcher with something relevant to share with the world, why not contribute by contacting us here? You could discuss a particular tool or workaround from you own experience. And beyond sharing your knowledge, it’s a way to make your research better known.

Besides Florian Henning and Martin Rehm, our project team consists of Koen Beumer and Joeri Bruyninckx (at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) and Jeroen van Merrienboer and Daniëlle Verstegen (from the Faculty of Health and Medicine).

Florian Henning and Martin Rehm, Researchers at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance / United Nations University-MERIT.

Third Age Online: Joining up the Generations

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80,” said car marker Henry Ford, who championed innovation till the age of 83. “Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

This is one of the goals of Third Age Online (TAO), a UNU-MERIT project which aims to keep the elderly active by engaging them online. Here “elderly” refers to anyone over the age of 50, and in some cases even over 100.

One key to building the TAO community, which already has 300,000+ members, is to help seniors help each other online, starting with practical issues like health, welfare and charity work. Another goal is to narrow the gap between generations and therefore ease social integration.

For now TAO focuses on three European countries – Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland – but it is designed to be transferable and provide a model for older generations around the world. In time this would include emerging economies, where rates of literacy and internet penetration are rising to workable levels.

Above all the project aims to make itself and its services visible and useful for the elderly, who may not fully grasp the interactive nature of the modern web and who typically need more accessibility options, from bigger fonts to crystal clear interfaces .

In this case awareness depends not only on the functionality of the TAO websites but also a clear understanding of what members can do and how they can benefit – hence the focus on charity, community and a growing network of mutual support.

In terms of building communities the experience of one partner stands out. Wikimedia has a great reputation for engaging people of all ages around the world in online collaborative endeavours. Its most famous product, Wikipedia, has become THE online reference tool and the most successful crowdsourcing project of all time, attracting some 350 million unique visitors per month.

Together with project partners like SeniorWeb, as well as Dutch and German universities, TAO is boiling down its combined knowledge into a handbook. A draft version is available below and more updates will be posted in the coming weeks, so watch this space.

Ultimately TAO is building the most user-friendly, accessible and engaging platforms: everything from the most logical user interfaces to surveys, workshops and photo competitions. This means giving the elderly a stake in the project and building a community with their active participation. It means adopting a positive rather than a patronizing approach and accepting that even the slickest of wizz-kids can learn from their older counterparts.

The project runs for three years from October 2010 to September 2013, and has around 3 million euros in funding. Around a half of that is drawn from the European Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme. The project is run from UNU-MERIT by Ruediger Glott and Stijn Bannier, who appears in the audio interview below. Click play to listen in or read on for more details from project coordinator Stijn Bannier.

Who attends TAO workshops?
: The project workshops aim to attract senior organizations, online communities, and of course the combination of online senior communities. This currently involves online senior communities (SeniorWeb Switzerland and the Netherlands) and Wikimedia’s (Switzerland and Germany), which organize their own workshops on how to actively engage seniors online. For example I will be attending a workshop given by SeniorWeb.NL on social networks (Facebook, Hyves, Twitter, Schoolbank, etc.), where I’ll observe how senior teachers are trained and how teachers then train SeniorWeb members.

– What are the specific needs of seniors? What are the challenges?
Bannier: A study of early users over 60 years old found they are often frustrated by the usability of online communities, i.e. layout, accessibility, and related barriers. These barriers tend to create negative emotions in early users which are then attributed to the online community as a whole. So efforts to motivate older people to join have to address existing counterarguments and stereotypes. Most helpful are positive role models who share the same  values, beliefs, interests, age, and level of education with potential new community members. People they can relate to. This approach requires a detailed definition of the target group so that persuasive messages can be tailored accordingly. Simple exposure to an online community is not sufficient for motivation and integration. We need to carefully match personal interests and desires with the online community.

– What do you mean by a “model for older generations around the world”?
SB: ‘Example’ might be a better word. Since the three involved countries are ahead in the area of digital inclusion, innovation and the developing online senior communities, the project partners can offer best practices for other countries, where on the one hand digital inclusion is still an issue and on the other hand aging is not yet an issue.

– Can you give an outline of the handbook?
Bannier: It will be a handbook for online-communities and operators of community platforms, containing effective strategies for improved inclusion of older persons in online communities (with a focus on older persons’ motivation and inclusion). You can follow the online creation of the handbook (and a first draft outline) here.

– Are you making use of data collection studies for accessibility, usability labs, or persona defining?
Bannier: Regarding accessibility and usability, Subproject 2 (software development) of the project is looking into a number of potentially useful aspects.

– How is TAO different from other initiatives like UrbAct or GetYourFolksonline?
Bannier: Where the latter two initiatives aim at getting seniors online, our project aims at engaging them online. TAO focuses on developing and rolling out measures to promote older persons’ participation in online communities. Thus, activating, engaging and mobilizing online seniors to make the most of Web 2.0 and all the possibilities of user-generated content, interaction and participation.


Coffee House Economists

One of my favourite articles from The Economist in 2011 is entitled ‘Back to the Coffee House’ (7 July 2011). The piece is not (at least directly) an ode to the world’s most coveted beverage, but rather a recognition that information and communication technology has now made communication more sociable, direct, open and integrated into daily life. Much as the situation was 300 years ago before the rise of printed newspapers.

Then, as The Economist writes “news travelled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in taverns and coffee houses in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides”. Today, with the circulation of printed papers declining, news is travelling increasingly via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email, texts, and internet sites.

How and what we communicate through these social media and other high-tech pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides have in 2011 been major topics of conversation in our virtual coffee shops, from the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks media leaks, to the News of the World hacking scandal.

Even academics seem to have caught on in 2011, with Jason Priem writing on the LSE’s Impact of Social Science’s Blog that scholars are slowly but surely undertaking “a great migration to online publishing”.

For economics, this can only be a good thing. Following the global financial crisis, the economics profession itself came in for stinging criticism. Academic economists have become, locked in their academic ivory-towers, largely out of touch with policy and practice.

Mark Thomas calls this the ‘Great Disconnect’, remarking that “as the ties between academic economists and the practitioners who use the models and techniques they produce have diminished, the questions economists ask have drifted away from the questions of most interest to society. To a large extent, economics has become separated from its real world users and applications”.

Social media offer economists opportunities to re-connect with society. Despite the growing popularity of a number of economics blogs there is still an undersupply of good economics blogs — and on average only 1 in 40 scholars is on Twitter (see Jason Priem).

This is the conclusion from Berk özler and David McKenzie from the World Bank, who having studied the impacts of 50 economics blogs found that a blog can “transform attitudes about some of the topics it covers”.

Transforming attitudes is a good start if one wants to influence policy and practice. Let us welcome more and more economists – and other scientists for that matter – back into the coffee house in 2012.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow, UNU-Maastricht