AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES EDUCATION AND COMMUNICATION, ENTOMOLOGY

Scientific Animations Without Borders scales knowledge for impact

By: Emma Ea Ambrose

August 26, 2021

How do you make access to scientific knowledge more democratic for people around the world?

How can we be inclusive of diverse groups in the creation of that knowledge?

And, finally, how can we equitably transfer that information to those who speak different languages, may not read or write or live in hard-to-reach areas of the world?

These questions have guided the organization Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO) since its founding in 2011. Co-founded by newly hired agricultural sciences education and communication assistant professor Julia Bello-Bravo and Barry Pittendrigh, Purdue’s Osmun Endowed Chair of Urban Entomology and director of the Center for Urban and Industrial Pest Management, SAWBO has created a research and highly scalable outreach program that uses the power of animation to disseminate scientific knowledge around the world.

“This program is very much focused on the land-grant mission and its ongoing efforts to be inclusive across a great diversity of people."

The animated videos range in subjects from agricultural processes, to disease prevention, to women empowerment, to peace and national healing for war-torn countries. The videos are designed for and used predominantly in low-literate regions, often in developing countries. Drawing on input from global experts, translators, animators and local civic leaders, the videos can easily be adapted to conform to local languages and customs. The contents are free to anyone who wants to use them.

“This program is very much focused on the land-grant mission and its ongoing efforts to be inclusive across a great diversity of people” Bello-Bravo said. She explains that “SAWBO is a platform for researching how we can scale knowledge across languages, cultures, literacy levels, and technological divides.  In turn, what we learn from our research drives how we scale content to more people across more languages and communities.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, SAWBO was well equipped to begin producing and distribution animations that discussed evidence-based practices for preventing the spread of the disease and techniques that would help people be resilient with the secondary, mostly economic impacts from the pandemic. The program initially produced cholera prevention content following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then, the program has expanded in scope with over 110 videos translated into 240 languages, with 12 million views online and a documented touch of 45 million people through other pathways by partner groups.

“SAWBO programming and strategies are ever-evolving,” Bello-Bravo said. The point of the program is two-fold, to share information but also to better understand how people learn and when they are most likely to adopt new techniques.

“My research program is focused on evaluating and understanding the impact this content has,” she continued. “I focus on understanding when, where, and how people learn and change behavior based on educational interventions where SAWBO content is used.”

This research has taken a broad diversity of approaches, including a 5-year long-term study in villages in Mozambique around post-harvest loss prevention to more recent work on broader global impact using YouTube data collected over the past decade.

SAWBO has continued to maintain a highly inclusive approach to knowledge creation and sharing that is simultaneously local and global .  For example, a local NGO, who used SAWBO content, discussed with Bello-Bravo the possibility of creating a video for how to purify water without applying heat. The village was downriver from a mine that severely polluted their water source.

A few students in Ghana using the SAWBO phone app
A few students in Ghana using the SAWBO phone app

“People did not have access to clean water,” Pittendrigh said. “Using local knowledge from a local community group and an associated NGO, also in collaboration with global experts on this topic, we were able to create an animation that showed how to use sand and charcoal to clean water. Although it was made with a group in Sierra Leone, when the video was translated into Portuguese it became widely drawn upon on our YouTube channel in Brazil.”

Using feedback from individuals, NGOs, and other civic groups, SAWBO is able to develop increasingly effective content with greater chances of reaching those that need it most. Additionally, they gather large amounts of data surrounding viewership and downloads from their YouTube channel. They’ve witnessed, for example, a massive transition from viewership on computers to phones, which helps them understand how to better format materials.

“With information there were ranges of time where we understood that transitions in technology were made, from the printing press to the radio to the television and onwards, but with our datasets we can see, almost in real time, how technology and its relationship to information is changing,” Pittendrigh explained. “Wondering when cell phones overtook other devices? We can pinpoint that down to the day.”

Other SAWBO researchers that moved to Purdue with Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh, include Anne Lutomia and John Medendorp.  Their work has focused on this dual aspect of the SAWBO of scaling content and studying impact.

Going forward, SAWBO is releasing content they expect will become increasingly important in the coming decade, especially around resilience associated with dealing with local challenges. Drawing on expertise across disciplines, SAWBO is planning more videos around climate change, women’s empowerment, and conflict resolution. And, of course, the scope of the organization will shift, change, and adapt based on feedback, data, and global events.

“What we’re doing is research for impact and impact for research,” Bello-Bravo said.  “This repeating cycle, helps us to continually expand who we can collaborate with and how we can have impact together.”

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