2 February 2012

Is less more? Creating an HIA community of practice online

A terrific guest post from Liz Green, Principal Health Impact Assessment Development Officer at the Wales Health Impact Assessment Support Unit.

Having read Ben’s posting regarding a more sophisticated use of social media for health impact assessment it struck a chord with me – particularly what Ben’s comments about passive online engagement – and made me think about the subject more.

As someone who actively updates a website and sends out e-updates and newsletters to a number of communities, organisations, networks, practitioners and policy makers I found what Ben said interesting.  The Wales Health Impact Assessment Support Unit (WHIASU) does not have a specific comments section on its website but as the administrator I rarely get feedback – positive or negative.  Yet we know from statistical figures we obtain each month, that 1,000’s of people browse and actively download information, research evidence and HIA Reports from the site each month.  So why is it so hard to get a better sense of the HIA community and to generate networking through social media?

Personally, I think the answer to this question may be found in identifying the barriers to the current use of social media and I have listed them in no particular order:
  • Lack of time to contribute or the intention to post later and then not doing it.
  • Personal information overload.   Posting on your own Facebook pages etc can be demanding enough (I’ve given up on it now – all that updating, replying, friending and defriending) without having to do it for ‘work’ – unless, of course it is built into your job description and are therefore committed to doing it. 
  • Work information overload. HIA forms just a small component of many public health/health improvement/environmental practitioners’ job roles and they may be on several different competing contact lists and networks, health and non-health related – each having websites, sending out mail and updates and but do people really read them?  Are we bombarded now?  How many people honestly just press delete or only skim them because they get so many?  They may only have time to browse other more relevant media for their current work streams.  
  • We need to consider that some people are just not technologically savvy on emerging media like Twitter and this could form a barrier.
  • Posting and commenting can be seen as a small ‘club’  of a few expert practitioners who post and are highly active and know each other – and dare I say it - men? This can be off putting.
  • And this brings me to my final thought - I think the most important barrier to moving the use of social media is FEAR and lack of confidence.  People fear appearing to ask silly questions and/or replying to posts and being dismissed for it by others.  On the one hand, the internet can be a very private place to hide in but on the other, posting a comment into the unknown leaves people very exposed on a global level. If we consider this at the extreme then it could be true to say that professional reputations could be shattered with the press of a button.  The emergence of ‘Trolling’ has also made many sensitive to this.  On Facebook people do know each other and although they may have friends of friends etc it is still seen as a relatively ‘safe’ environment to contribute to.  The very term ‘friend’ makes it appear this way and people like personal interaction and have some semblance of control over their network. In Wales, I am known personally by most of the Public Health and HIA policy makers and practitioners (and many more people know of me) and whenever I send out an e-update I get lots of private replies back.  Even if I state others should be emailed in the first instance.  People know me and they know that they can ask me anything and I will not think that they are silly or stupid or don’t have a clue or whatever. I posted on a network site last week and came into work today to find the person whose post I had replied to had found my work email address and emailed me directly and was asking for lots of info and could I send it to him privately. It is a classic example.
I’m not sure what the answer to Ben’s question is.  In a small country like Wales, we may or may not be able to mobilise a community of practitioners who interact with each other in a more interactive way so it may be unrealistic to assume that it can be done on a global level.  Perhaps, we should be satisfied by the level of social media we have now and the few people who do post?  It may be unrealistic to expect more sophisticated levels at least in the short term.  Anonymity may help but then no-one knows who to approach for assistance, the credibility of the poster and the background to what is being said.

I’m beginning to think that perhaps ‘less is more’ and to just focus on being ‘on trend’ – targeting the most fashionable and usable media at any given time and that as trends come and go the focus will change.  The approach will be a much more fluid and flexible.

WHIASU aims to launch a forum on the WHIASU website this year.  However, we aim to utilise it in an active way – as a ‘drop in’ site discussing relevant pre posted issues for a 2 hour window.  I did one last year with a National Welsh Housing Organisation – and it worked quite well – once I got over the time lag and the queue building up of questions to answer.  It will be interesting to see what kind of response we get.