SILS faculty confront a tumultuous year with research and advocacy

Challenging misperceptions about masks

In early 2020, UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) Associate Professor Zeynep Tufekci condemned the CDC’s recommendations against mask use on Twitter and in an op-ed for the New York Times, titled “Why Telling People They Didn’t Need Masks Backfired.” Her public criticism was reportedly the tipping point that convinced the agency to change its stance in April.

Tufekci also joined over 100 experts – including two Nobel laureates and the editors of Nature and The Lancet – to sign an open letter to all U.S. governors, asking them to “require cloth masks to be worn in all public places, such as stores, transportation systems, and public buildings.” The column became the #1 op-ed USA Today published during the week of May 15.

Tufecki penned numerous other op-eds and commentaries about the government and public’s response to COVID-19, the potential impact of Black Lives Matter Protests, and the presidential election. Click the links below to read some of her opinions from 2020 and visit her author's page at The Atlantic's website for additional columns.  

Tufekci is also the author of Twitter and Teargas: The Ecstatic, Fragile Politics of Networked Protest in the 21st Century, published by Yale University Press. This fall she launched a newsletter at zeynep.substack.com.  

Creating a data-viz dashboard to track COVID-19 deaths

SILS Associate Professor David Gotz teamed with two other UNC-Chapel Hill researchers this spring to create an interactive, online visualization system to help public health officials track and respond to COVID-19 deaths. 

Project leaders included Smiti Kaul, a computer science master’s student at Carolina, and Cameron Coleman, MD, a preventive medicine resident at the UNC School of Medicine. Kaul is also a research assistant with the Visual Analysis and Communication Laboratory (VACLab), which Gotz directs.

Working with the NC Department of Health and Human Services, the team developed a system that aggregates online datasets for COVID-19 infection rates and morgue utilization. Data is then tabulated at the county and region levels and presented through an interactive, web-based application. 

Users can adjust interactive maps and other statistical charts to view live reports of metrics at multiple aggregation levels. This enables health agencies, hospitals, and other key stakeholders to visualize fatality data in real-time and identify areas where extra support might soon be needed. 

Kaul, Coleman, and Gotz describe their work in an article published by the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (doi.org/10.1093/jamia/ocaa146). 

Measuring COVID-19’s impact on gig workers

SILS Associate Professor Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi has been awarded funding from the NC Policy Collaboratory to document the impact of COVID-19 on gig workers and their ability to work independently.

The project will examine how the skills used for location-based gig work can translate into the skills needed for online digital work and develop educational materials that can help with the transition. 

The social and professional upheavals caused by COVID-19 have reduced or eliminated many location-based gig work options. For instance, clients of dog walking companies are now staying home and no longer need the service. 

As a result, some gig workers are switching to location-independent work, such as online freelancing and paid crowdsourcing.

“While these workers might already be familiar with gig work and digital labor platforms, the dynamics of location-independent digital labor can still be different and overwhelming,” Jarrahi said. “Instead of meeting local clients in person, workers must learn to distinguish themselves in a global market through remote communication, using online tools.”

Asking libraries to take a stand

SILS Assistant Professor Amelia Gibson was first author on “Struggling to Breathe: COVID-19, Protest and the LIS Response,” published ahead-of-print in August by Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal

A follow-up to “Libraries on the Frontlines: Neutrality and Social Justice,” which was published by the journal in 2017, the article addresses institutional responses to protests and uprising in the spring and summer of 2020 after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, all of which occurred in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The article expands the previous call for libraries to take a stand for Black lives (doi.org/10.1108/EDI-07-2020-0178).

Offering an online anti-racist resource

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the injustices they helped publicize prompted many people to search for guidance on how to actively combat racism, and some found the necessary resources through Project READY (Reimagining Equity and Access for Diverse Youth).

The free online curriculum was designed to help youth services library staff learn to create more inclusive and equitable programming, but many of the modules cover foundational issues related to race, racism, and racial equity work, making them useful for a broader audience. 

Starting in June, the Project READY website saw a surge in visitors. Over a period of 90 days from August through October, the site logged more than 27,000 unique visitors.

SILS Professor Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Teaching Assistant Professor Casey Rawson led Project READY as Principal Investigator and Co-PI and developed the online curriculum with SILS doctoral student Kimberly Hirsh. Made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the project represents the work of more than 40 scholars, library and school practitioners, and youth from a wide variety of racial and cultural backgrounds.