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Web site provides forum for discussion of Katrina aftemath, how to help

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Acting out of a sense of both personal trauma and political distress at the scope of the Katrina Hurricane catastrophe and what he calls the “failure of the response,” a professor who taught at Tulane University in New Orleans has set up a public online forum to address the disaster.

Joseph Valente, who now is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he started the forum as part of a Web site called “New Orleans in Crisis” “because I thought that the disaster was not eliciting the mass reaction that 9/11 did, and I felt it should.”

The forum is designed for discussion and analysis of the situation, but it also is a vehicle for finding opportunities and for helping. For example, the site includes “How to Help,” “Campus Action” and links sections – two of them action-oriented, the third focused on programmatic and analytical responses.

“The response to these sections has been quite strong,” said Valente, adding that he has tried to maintain a balance between discussion and practical information.

Valente taught at Tulane for four years before coming to Illinois in 1995. When starting the forum, the scholar of late Victorian and modern British and Irish literature posted the following open letter: “My heart is broken over what has happened to my former city, and I fully recognize how personal and idiosyncratic a response that might be. But surely we are all overwhelmed by the devastation and enraged by the politics of the federal response. Is there no forum we can devise to discuss these sentiments, no declaration we can frame or action we can take to publicize them? I hope so and I hope this is a start.”

Anyone can contribute to the Web site, which runs on Illinois’ iLabs (Inquiry Labs) software, “and unless something is truly and willfully offensive or obscene, everything that gets posted stays posted,” said Valente, who monitors the forum.

The site contains a host of “bookmarks”: columns from the New Orleans
Times-Picayune, The New York Times, MSNBC and, from Molly Ivins and others, including Michael Moore’s message to George W. Bush; CNN free on-demand videos; also, essays and first-hand accounts and several live reports from bloggers in New Orleans who are equipped with Web cams and are posting photo archives.

iLab software was developed at Illinois by “a collective group of faculty, staff and students, plus community members and the participation of people around the globe,” said Ann Bishop, a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science who helped set up the Katrina iLab site. Chip Bruce, a colleague in the library school, is the founder of iLabs.

The iLabs provide “free Web-based tools designed to help people and their communities communicate, collaborate and develop a shared capacity for problem-solving,” Bishop said.

Valente deals with the substantive issues of his forum, and is assisted in the technological aspects by Bishop, Bruce and others at Illinois, including graduate students Eunhee Kim and Sunny Jeong in GSLIS’s Community Informatics Corps. CIC’s mission is “to prepare information professionals, through academic inquiry, practical engagement and professional development, for careers in community and public-interest work,” Bishop said.

The informatics corps is not restricted to GSLIS and includes participation across disciplines and from local community members, Bishop said.

Prairienet is another core partner in the Katrina project. Prairienet staff member Karen Fletcher, for example, created a listserv for it. The CIC and Prairienet also have offered to help local evacuee shelters set up computer stations so people can look for lost friends and family members using databases set up for that purpose, and use e-mail to communicate, Bishop said.

John Unsworth, the GSLIS dean, “got the ball rolling,” Valente said. Bishop set up the Web site, and Bruce introduced Valente to the informatics group.

Bishop said the technical principle behind iLabs is that anyone – regardless of their technical skills, access to computers and the Web, and financial resources – should be able to create an interactive Web site related to events and issues that are important to them.

“Our basic philosophical principle is ‘community inquiry’ – the ability to merge education and everyday experience, to work and learn in concert with people from all walks of life in order to investigate and develop responses to local needs and issues, while respecting and making productive use of the diverse perspectives, capabilities and knowledge that each learner brings.”

According to Bishop, iLabs software is developed continuously through an open process of inquiry in which users, such as Valente, participate. iLab applications include a discussion forum, calendar, blog, contact list, Web bookmarks, syllabus, file uploading and a built-in-editor “so that you can make Web pages without having to know how to create html code.”

“People around the world have used iLabs to create interactive Web sites for school and university courses, research projects, neighborhood action, etc.”

The iLabs home page is where one can develop an iLabs Web site or browse current iLabs sites.

According to local news reports, some 50 evacuees have relocated to
Champaign-Urbana, and a handful of students have transferred to Illinois.