Designing for Better: How Virtual Reality Can Revolutionize Disaster Preparedness

Potrero Elementary School, Potrero, Malabon, Metro Manila

Patrick Naui, Alyzza Delgado, Lara Severino, Richard Parayno, & Frances Tan

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There was minimal opportunity for students to apply what they learned inside the classroom because they can only do so during actual disasters.

The deeper level of empathy is about relating to other people's problems and sharing a common vision to solve it.

In today’s digitally-driven world, students are learning in new ways. They have less patience with theory, preferring to learn practical applications in real-life situations. They want lessons to be interactive, personalized, and visual. If teaching is to be truly effective, the traditional classroom must adjust to these new conventions.

Education has always been an essential component of disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts. After all, how can people prepare and react to an emergency situation if they do not have the knowledge to do so? This is even more critical in the Philippines, with high vulnerability among different sectors, including the youth.

Patrick Naui, Alyzza Delgado, and Lara Severino of Ania Design Lab agreed with this assessment. As Computer Science majors from De La Salle University, the trio was particularly interested in designing effective learning experiences. They found their muse in the K-12 education system – working on their thesis, they came to a realization that there was an opportunity to further optimize the teaching of disaster preparedness under the current school curriculum.

When TUKLAS Innovation Labs released its call for proposals that will demonstrate innovation in DRR, he convinced his classmates to apply their thesis idea for a grant. Ania’s application was approved, and so the Disaster Preparedness Simulator (DPS) project was born.

SIMULATING CHOICES

DPS is a mobile virtual reality (VR) simulation covering three common natural hazards experienced in the country: flooding, storm surge, and earthquakes. Users are immersed in realistic disaster situations where they would have to make decisions to survive. At the end of each scenario, users are presented with their remaining “life score” so they can measure how effective their choices were. DPS works on any Android-powered smartphone connected to Google Cardboard.

Reaching out to senior high school teachers, Ania team members found that student participation was low during disaster preparedness courses. Alyzza noted that these classes utilized traditional instructional methods such as drills and roleplay.

“There was minimal opportunity for students to apply what they learned inside the classroom because they can only do so during actual disasters,” Patrick added. “This is exactly what we wanted to accomplish with the VR simulator: put them in such a disaster situation where they can make life-and-death decisions without compromising their safety.

LEARNING TO DESIGN

Initially, Ania relied on national-level data from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) on casualties and damages wrought by disasters for designing DPS. But what they learned, as they talked to barangay officials, teachers, and community members, is that context is everything.

“As software designers, we sometimes get stuck in a bubble of our biases and preferences,” said Lara. “What we learned through TUKLAS is that the community has to be the center of our project. We have to learn from their practices and pre-existing systems if the simulator is to become a truly immersive experience.”

These discussions gave the Ania team valuable insights into the design of the VR environment, particularly on the typical Filipino house and school. They were also linked by TUKLAS to a DRRM consultant who provided guidance on technical matters and ensured that the scenarios were realistic.

Patrick recalls one particular recommendation that stuck with him. “Anthony, the DRR consultant, advised us to set the VR scenarios during the nighttime. He told us, ‘What you can do at night, you can do by day, but not everything you do by day can be done during the night,'” he said.

WORKING THE PROCESS

After a prolonged search for a partner institution, the team finally settled with Potrero Elementary School (PES) in Malabon City. Barangay Potrero is a low-lying community prone to flooding as well as liquefaction during earthquakes. As DRR was mainstreamed in its school improvement plan, the school was excited to work with Ania.

“We reassured them that despite the disaster simulation feeling real, they have nothing to fear because they are in a safe environment,” Alyzza emphasizes. Alyzza and Lara are often the ones to assist the students in trying the DPS while Patrick leads the briefing and debriefing.

The team also conducted two testing sessions in Camarines Sur to gather insights from a rural perspective. Elementary Students of Sagnay Central School had the chance to try Ania’s Disaster Preparedness Simulator, with it being their first experience with virtual reality. Senior high school students from a community college in Siruma also tried the simulator, giving more mature feedback.

Despite the language barrier between the team and the students, the latter appreciated how close to reality the experience was and how it could have been a better experience if they were able to move and interact as a group within the game. The kids also asked for a second try at the game to make sure that they survive the scenarios and make it to the evacuation center.

Even if it was a 12-hour drive from Manila to Camarines Sur, the Ania team felt rewarded by the smiles and laughter of the faces of the students, definitely an experience for the books.

GROWING IN LEAPS AND BOUNDS

DPS is definitely on track towards revolutionizing the way schools teach DRR, but its impact on the lives of Ania team members cannot be stated enough.

“Working with TUKLAS has brought me out of my self-imposed bubble,” shared Lara. “I learned to appreciate ideas from other people and incorporate them into my own thinking. I’m definitely excited by the possibilities of educating people.”

Alyzza expressed her gratefulness for the boost her career received due to the project. “It has helped build my professional networks while teaching me to handle situations better.”

For Patrick, the best thing he learned is empathy. “The deeper level of empathy is about relating to other people’s problems and sharing a common vision to solve it.”