Open Letter to RPI

It came to my attention that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) created a mailing list from the volunteer and donor information sheets provided to it by Socks for Japan (SFJ), and used the list on Tuesday to ask people to participate in a follow-up survey regarding participation in SFJ.

I did not authorize this.

Regarding the unauthorized use of our data, I contacted the Dean of Engineering, the head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering department, and the research assistant who sent the survey.

It looks to me that the survey is well-intentioned, but it is nonetheless inappropriate to convert our donation logs to an in-house mailing list without permission. Our volunteers and donors were motivated by a desire to help the survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. They did not sign up for emails from RPI. Had RPI asked me for permission to send a survey to SFJ’s people, I would have examined the survey, decided whether it was worth our time to participate, and, if so, sent a note in advance of the survey telling the SFJ organization why I thought it was a good idea for us to join the effort.

Please accept my apology for this breach of etiquette by RPI.

Below is my letter to the dean, department head, and research assistant, further explaining why we are especially sensitive to mistreatment by RPI. What should have been a cooperation that improved volunteer efforts to care for survivors of future disasters instead became a career-boosting endeavor by one of RPI’s professors.

__________________________________________

[Dear Research Assistant,]

A donor to my Socks for Japan project (SFJ) asked me if your RPI survey sent Tuesday was real or not. In the future, please clear your follow-up efforts targeting my volunteers and donors with me in advance of contacting them. I want to see the questions you intend to ask and decide whether to authorize them or not. If I do authorize them, I will tell SFJ’s volunteers and donors that they’re on the way with my endorsement, rather than having them appear out of the blue and surprise people, and give the impression that SFJ and RPI are working together.

A little background will explain why.

I agreed to allow RPI Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras to study our donation data, and we took him to the areas of the disaster zone that proved most enlightening to him, judging by how he used them in his op-ed piece. He did not credit SFJ in his piece, which did not sit well with our team. He had previously disparaged our effort by pointing out common ways that similar volunteer efforts had gone wrong in the past and saying that ours would go wrong, too. He wrote to me that the “campaign is likely to do more harm than good.” After seeing that he’d been wrong, he should have publicly recanted or at least discussed the good results that he’d seen our team achieving. Instead, he pretended he’d never met us.

Unbeknownst to him, the SFJ team had already studied the previous mistakes that so worried him when he suggested we stop the project. We knew that many well-meaning people panic and think they’re helping by sending unneeded junk to shelters, where it accumulates and causes extra work for volunteers. We knew that it was a mistake to duplicate what the larger relief organizations were already doing. We knew that it was a mistake to ask already stretched groups to help us deliver our donated goods.

With these cautionary lessons in mind, we structured our effort to avoid such pitfalls. Once we were up and running in an organized manner and receiving requests for delivery from shelters, we allowed Prof. Holguin-Veras to piggyback on the network we created in order to study the heart of the disaster zone. We demonstrated that we had contacted stricken areas to find out who needed the one type of care package we distributed (socks and letters), and how we directly delivered the goods in a way that didn’t disturb other emergency efforts but boosted the spirits of survivors. Prof. Holguin-Veras observed this firsthand.

We thought he would share with the world what he had learned from us, namely that locally organized efforts can have a positive impact when run properly, because he expressed admiration during the day we spent together in our distribution van. Instead, he used our effort for his own self-promotion, crediting Japanese university colleagues rather than SFJ for the behind-the-scenes transportation that we coordinated for him. It felt to us that he did not want to admit to discovering an effort whose success called into question some of what he’d written on the subject during his career. Instead, he selectively reported from the disaster zone in a way that cast himself in a positive light as the intrepid on-the-ground researcher working with professors from Japanese universities boasting name recognition. A successful grassroots effort such as SFJ did not fit the picture he’d painted for academia over many years.

In the wake of this disappointing experience with Prof. Holguin-Veras, you can imagine that none of us is pleased to discover RPI using our organization’s data without requesting permission to do so. I did not sign up my list of volunteers and donors for a lifetime of follow-up to provide Prof. Holguin-Veras or others working alongside him with talking points for their next presentation. Our purpose at SFJ was to help the suffering people of northeastern Japan. We thought the professor shared this goal, and that by granting him access to our data and field work we could aid volunteers in future disasters, thereby amplifying the benefit.

Instead, we never received a word of support from Prof. Holguin-Veras, were not mentioned in his op-ed despite it having focused on where we took him in the disaster zone, and now find that RPI is asking our donors about how they heard of our organization and motivation to help us in a tone that implies we authorized it to do so. We did not!

I realize that you are not Prof. Holguin-Veras and that you probably knew nothing of this background when sending your survey to SFJ donors. In a way, however, this is even more disturbing as it appears that our data has become commonly available to researchers at RPI. I expressly forbid this.

You must request permission from me before proceeding with any future plans to contact SFJ donors and volunteers so I can clear how RPI intends to use the information we provided beyond the scope of the initial agreement. The database of volunteers and donors belongs to SFJ, not RPI.

Further, I request credit in follow-up reports RPI writes about our effort. It was not RPI nor Prof. Holguin-Veras who saw the need for socks and moral support; researched what works and what doesn’t; marketed to gather volunteers and donors from around the world; created an organization that was efficient enough to process thousands of pairs of donated socks per day and deliver up to 12,000 in a single run; avoided common pitfalls of disaster assistance; and worked nearly full time for four months and part-time for a year to help people.

We developed valuable techniques that Prof. Holguin-Veras doubted from the get-go. He never publicly retracted his skepticism even after it was proved misplaced. If RPI now agrees that the SFJ project was effective enough to warrant further study, we deserve credit for this rather than remaining nameless so that it appears the methods were a product of Prof. Holguin-Veras’s research. Quite the opposite: He said what we were doing would be more hindrance than help, but he was wrong. Not only did he turn out to be unhelpful to us, he’s tried taking advantage of our organization’s success to promote his own reputation.

This needs to stop.

Thank you,
Jason Kelly

Don’t miss the rest of the story: Follow-Up With RPI

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24 Comments

  1. Jennifer
    Posted April 25, 2015 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    I should have considered the breach – but this university is very reputable and I assumed that they had you permission. I gather I am too trusting.
    Jennifer

    • Posted April 27, 2015 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      At least there was nothing dangerous about it, Jennifer, just unprofessional. I hope to have it sorted out sometime this week.

  2. Eileen
    Posted April 25, 2015 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Thank you Jason, for allowing us to be privy to this information. Such a shame that life has to work like this. Once again you show yourself and your organization as honest, clear minded, and compassionate like you did during the disaster/relief four years ago. Unless you recommend it I will not be doing the survey.
    I still remember so many of the images from the times you delivered the socks to those lovely people.
    All the best,
    Eileen

    • Posted April 27, 2015 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Eileen. It was a wonderful network of people behind SFJ. I’m glad you were one of them!

  3. Lee
    Posted April 25, 2015 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand why donor and volunteer email addresses were shared with a third party in the first place. Can we get some clarification regards this?

    • Posted April 27, 2015 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

      I agreed to share our donation logs with RPI’s department that studies disaster relief logistics so they could better understand where we received our donations, how much was spent to send them, and so on. I did not agree to this email harvesting, which was possible by having a team of undergrads type all the email addresse from the logs into a database. My hope was that the lessons learned by SFJ could be put to good use by other civilian relief groups after future disasters. A follow-up survey out of the blue four years later could be considered part of a way to magnify the impact of SFJ, but not without our permission.

  4. Diane
    Posted April 27, 2015 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    Too bad! I was intending to take the opportunity of the Survey to sing Jason’s praises as the initiator, organizer and thoughtful, ethical force that made the SFJ the success that it was. (I actually wrote to CNN Hero nominations about him.) I know it takes “a village” (and the members of the SFJ “village” were awesome), but any successful village also needs a Chief to guide it and hold it together. But, if these researchers have refused to previously recognize SFJ, or Jason Kelly for spearheading this humanitarian project, then I will not participate in the Survey. If I do not know how the information will REALLY be used, it is not worth the 10 minutes of my time.

  5. Posted May 8, 2015 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I think the intention of RPI is good but still it’s quite unprofessional how they handle this.

    • Posted May 20, 2015 at 3:07 am | Permalink

      Without a doubt. The follow-up continues with the department head. I’ll post a summary of highlights once we reach some kind of understanding. This relationship with RPI has been a disappointment. It could have been such a good opportunity to better help the survivors of future disasters.

  6. Margaret
    Posted March 11, 2016 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    This is the first I have heard of this. In fact, it’s the first I’ve heard anything of or from SFJ since I sent you $250 worth of socks five years ago. I’m sorry this has happened and hope it has a positive outcome, but I’m also interested in the fact that this organization still exists. What have you done in the past four years?

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