Follow-Up With RPI

Following publication of my April 24, 2015 Open Letter to RPI regarding the mistreatment of Socks for Japan by Professor Jose Holguin-Veras, I sent the following letter to Chris Letchford, professor and head of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in which Prof. Holguin-Veras works:

Dear Prof. Letchford,

It came to my attention that RPI created a mailing list from the volunteer and donor information logs of Socks for Japan (SFJ), a relief organization I operated to support survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and used it on Tuesday to ask donors and volunteers to participate in a follow-up survey regarding participation in SFJ.

I did not authorize this.

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. The people in our organization were motivated by a desire to help survivors. 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 volunteers and donors why I thought it was a good idea for us to join the effort.

Our relationship with RPI is via Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras. He first contacted me to discourage me from launching SFJ because he assumed we would make mistakes that most grassroots support groups make in the wake of a disaster. I explained how we had already researched common pitfalls and were proceeding in a way that would avoid them, and he asked if he could study our effort. I agreed to share our logs with him. We even took him with us on a distribution to Higashi-Matsushima, a place that proved to be such a vital part of his tour of the disaster zone that it became the focal point of his op-ed — yet he neglected to mention SFJ in the piece.

He also never publicly retracted his skepticism toward SFJ even after it was proved misplaced. 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.

For more on our grievances with Prof. Holguin-Veras, and why we’re sensitive to further disrespect from RPI, please see my “Open Letter to RPI” at:

http://jasonkelly.com/2015/04/open-letter-to-rpi/

I request:

<> that RPI stop using SFJ data for new purposes without first receiving permission from me,

<> a public acknowledgment from Prof. Holguin-Veras that our operation did not make the mistakes he said it would make,

<> and credit in follow-up reports from RPI that reference SFJ data and history.

Thank you,
Jason Kelly

On April 28, 2015, Prof. Letchford replied:

Dear Jason,

I want to thank you for your email.

With regards to your requests, I am pleased to inform you that RPI follows accepted standards of practice for research and has an Internal Review Board that makes sure this is the case. As part of these standards, participants are able to bow out of any study, and may be acknowledged for participation if confidentially permits.

Important research into Humanitarian Logistics, such as carried out by RPI, relies on community engagement and participation in often difficult and trying times. We certainly appreciate your willingness to share data under the conditions established in the non-disclosure-agreement you signed with Professor Holguin-Veras on October 4, 2011. Please be assured that your contributions will be acknowledged in research publications produced using SFJ data. Furthermore, I need to mention that Professor Holguin-Veras credited your contributions in his LA Times Op-Ed. See:

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/11/opinion/la-oe-holguin-veras-tsunami-20120311

The general policy in Professor Holguin-Veras’ group is to conduct evidenced-based research and, certainly not to publically criticize the work of specific relief groups. RPI is interested in enhancing disaster relief operations through informed research and analyses of actual events. Any comments made by Professor Holguin-Veras on the SFJ efforts were addressed directly to you and since Professor Holguin-Veras has not made any public criticisms of SFJ, I cannot ask him to retract.

As a matter of clarification, the main objective of the survey is to gain insight into donor behavior.

I believe I have addressed your three requests, and if you have no objections I will post this response to your open letter to RPI on your website.

Best regards,
Chris

Due to business travel, I was unable to reply until May 8, 2015, when I sent the following:

Dear Chris,

At last, I’ve had time to read your response and reply.

Upfront, I would like to thank you for investigating a situation you knew nothing about, and doing your best to address my concerns. I will go through your note by section.

I appreciate that Socks for Japan will be credited in future uses of its data. However, the citation in Prof. Holguin-Veras’s op-ed that you mentioned is invalid evidence of credit in the past. It did not appear in the original, printed version of the op-ed. It was tacked on at the end for the digital archive only after volunteers noticed its absence in the LA Times and told me, and I complained to Prof. Holguin-Veras. It’s obvious that this is the case even in the wording, which is, in total: “Jason Kelly contributed to this essay.”

It was more than Jason Kelly, it was the SFJ network of people that planned the day and made it possible across backroads in our van, and it was more than a contribution. Worse, the op-ed missed the point of our day in the field, which was to demonstrate to the professor how citizen volunteer efforts can be effective, his own protestations notwithstanding. The main person mentioned in the op-ed, Koutaro Ogata, is a community leader who requested multiple visits by SFJ. The reason Prof. Holguin-Veras could hear the story of running up a higher hill to escape the tsunami is that we arranged to take him with us to hear it. Even at the time of its relating, Mr. Ogata joked that advice to get to a higher hill is not exactly a breakthrough, but it became the focus of the op-ed. In fact, Mr. Ogata spent much more time explaining to the professor how personal deliveries of goods boosted the spirits of his neighbors, but that part was left out of the op-ed.

Whether we agree or disagree on the merits of the op-ed, what I would like is an admission that SFJ has not been properly acknowledged by Prof. Holguin-Veras in the past. Please do not refer to a hasty addition to the end of the professor’s bio after the op-ed had been published, as acknowledgment. Indeed, it was the lack of acknowledgment that led to my complaint that generated the tacked-on sentence.

Moving on, you wrote that “RPI follows accepted standards of practice for research and has an Internal Review Board that makes sure this is the case.” I am not comforted by this information due to what we consider to have been an inappropriate survey of our volunteers without first clearing the project with us. The IRB is evidently not very strict in its enforcement. The way our volunteers were approached suddenly after four years had passed gave the impression that the survey was being done in conjunction with SFJ’s management, which it was not. This is why volunteers were confused.

The NDA I signed, dated October 3, 2011 in the opening paragraph, said I would share the data SFJ collected for Prof. Holguin-Veras’s research purposes. The emphasis was on our data. The NDA even specified that the confidentiality of individuals listed in the data would not be released or used in a way that permits the identification of specific individuals. It also said the data would not be released to other institutions.

Using the individual email addresses of our donors to create a follow-up study by a person at RPI other than Prof. Holguin-Veras violates the NDA. It identifies individuals in a way that surprised many of them. The use of our data was intended to enable RPI to see the volume of donations that came from various countries and states, at what cost, based on the information that we tracked. It was not intended to provide an in-house mailing list for RPI follow-up efforts by anybody within the university, on any project, with no time limit. None of us had ever heard of the research assistant whose name was attached to the survey.

I recognize that the survey of SFJ’s network was intended to improve insight into donor behavior, and I support such efforts, but it should have been cleared with me first. If I had approved it, I would have been happy to provide input on its wording and some of the questions, and would have explained to donors that it was on the way with my blessings. As it happened, people were surprised and unhappy to discover that they’d been entered into a database without their consent.

I believe the survey was conducted in violation of the October 2011 NDA. I request that RPI cease and desist in further use of SFJ data without clearing future projects with me in advance. Future agreements will be on a project-specific basis. I would like to further the understanding of disaster donation patterns, but when studies are done on SFJ volunteers I want to be part of the process and to be able to remove the entire dataset of email addresses from studies when necessary. If this is too much to ask, then simply stop using SFJ data in any manner.

It’s possible that if SFJ had been better treated by Prof. Holguin-Veras in the past, we’d be more forgiving now. However, the survey without our consent continues a pattern of disrespect from the professor that I want stopped.

Finally, I have no objection to your posting your reply to me on the open letter to RPI on my site. I will append this response to yours as well to provide full transparency to those following the issue.

Thank you, again, for your help with this matter.

Sincerely,
Jason

After thinking about the issue more that weekend, I decided it must have been difficult for Prof. Letchford to understand why SFJ is so upset with Prof. Holguin-Veras. We could be sure Prof. Letchford would not receive background details from Prof. Holguin-Veras. To bring Prof. Letchford up to speed on the history, then, I sent him the following backgrounder on May 11, 2015:

Hi Chris,

Attached are several images from our May 21, 2011 Socks for Japan distribution with Prof. Holguin-Veras. The “Day With Jose” document is the top page of the trip schedule, which included details on subsequent pages such as local contact information, approximate number of survivors at each stop, hazards along the way, and so on. You can see the two volunteers who joined us that day, Rumiko Ogane and Miwa Kurita, putting the top part of the document into our van’s navigation system at 3am in one of the photos.

The day’s distribution schedule was carefully planned by our logistics manager, Takako Otani, specifically to show Prof. Holguin-Veras a behind-the-scenes look at the disaster zone and our operation, which he requested to see. It was not prepared by the professor’s colleagues at Japanese universities, as implied in his op-ed.

This implication was cleverly inserted into the professor’s op-ed, “Japan’s 1,000-year-old warning,” from which: “After a long day of field work, my colleagues and I were chatting with a community leader, Koutaro Ogata, from a fishing village called Murohama.” These colleagues were the three of us from Socks for Japan. Yet, later, the only colleague identified is Eiichi Taniguchi from Kyoto University, who had nothing to do with the distribution: “The day before, an engineering colleague, Eiichi Taniguchi, had told me that researchers at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, had found sediments indicating that a huge tsunami had hit Miyatojima about 1,000 years ago.” The implication is that the day was planned by university colleagues and that Prof. Holguin-Veras was accompanied into the field by fellow professors. This is not explicitly stated, but implied — and wholly untrue.

In truth, the day was planned by Socks for Japan for the purpose of helping survivors and showing Prof. Holguin-Veras the heart of the disaster zone, where real aid was being provided.

From the professor’s April 1, 2011 email to me: “I’d like to get your help in identifying volunteers that could collaborate with us as guides and translators. I already got some of my colleagues from Kyoto University to assist us, though it would be best to have local contacts.”

From my April 26, 2011 email to him: “I’m glad you received the go-ahead for a trip to Tohoku May 16-20. We’ll be distributing in the area on Wednesday, May 18. Let me know if you’d like to join us for a sock and letter distribution to see firsthand what we’ve been doing. If your area and ours are close enough, it might be possible.” The date that worked became May 21.

From his May 18, 2011 email to me: “I am very interested in getting your perspective (from the ground level) on the humanitarian response.”

From his May 19, 2011 email to me: “So far, most of the meetings have been with: the Regional office of the Ministry for Land, Infrastructure (MLITT), Miyagi Prefecture, Cities of Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, Yamato and Sagawa (the transport companies), in essence the official response to the disaster. I have been stressing to my colleagues the need to schedule interviews with the local volunteers, NGOs and the like. However, when scheduling their interviews they primarily focused on the official side, which is what they are more familiar with.”

The following is my complete response, showing frustration at the many schedule changes and the official bias of the professor’s exposure to the disaster. We worked hard to try to show him the real situation and the effectiveness of our operation, all while running our operation:

———-

Jose,

Your reply gives me hope that you’re trying to research the real situation instead of the official party line on the situation. I’ve doubted that, to be honest. It seemed that your schedule was replete with meaningless meetings and bereft of the people who are actually making a difference on the ground.

Case in point: the fully-stocked warehouses you’ve undoubtedly been shown as proof that people have everything they need and that further supplies are being wasted, are a separate category. The great shame is that those warehouses are stocked with tax-write-off goods and donated junk of the kind you and others warned me against (SWEDOW), and are often not scheduled for proper distribution to the needy because the bulk of the benefit to the donors and workers happened by just stocking the warehouse. We’ve seen it dozens of times. Within a short drive of a brimming warehouse, people are going without the very food and clothing that warehouse workers are complaining about and laughing about as they point to the piles upon piles of “amatta bushi,” which means left-over supplies, on the news.

So, I would like to show you the street-level view of the disaster that puts needed goods directly into hands and provides cheer for the heart, which is critical at this stage. As part of that, I’d like to show you parts of the disaster zone that don’t make the news, that officials barely acknowledge, and that the big NGOs have largely overlooked.

If you promise me you will not miss another chance at meeting, we’ll make a special distribution schedule in Higashi Matsushima on Saturday — for the express purpose of showing what you probably won’t see via your other sources. We know the community leaders who are scrambling to get goods to their people and complaining that nobody cares about less-famous areas. It’s easy to know what Ishinomaki, Kesennuma, and Minami Sanriku need. It’s harder and requires real dedication to know what a small inlet community along the Matsushima coastline needs. It’s also harder to get to the small areas where the one access road is destroyed, in many cases.

My idea is to have you join us for a special distribution in Higashi Matsushima on Saturday. It’s close enough to Sendai that you can stay in a hotel there in the big city and make a day trip with us to Hig Matsu. If you need transportation, we can even pick you up in Sendai and take you with us. Meeting outside the city would be better, though.

With this plan, you can actually hand out some socks and letters to people in places that will show you a different side of the disaster. We’ll distribute in the morning, and can spend the afternoon talking with you about our operation.

I’m willing to do all of this only if you guarantee you won’t leave us hanging out to dry in favor of meeting another government official. We carefully planned yesterday to show you several facets of our operation. When you didn’t connect, many of our team members were very disappointed and complained that “it always goes this way with universities. They always study the wrong things in the wrong way to reach the conclusions they know in advance they want to reach.” Having interacted with you, I want to give benefit of the doubt and proceed in hope that you’re not part of the way it “always goes” in these studies.

Please understand, though, that this is the second time we’re preparing a special day for you. If you agree to it, do not let us down. We’re busy in our aid operation and don’t like special planning when we can avoid it. For you, given your interest in our effort and the broader impact you might be able to help us make, we’re willing to change our plans a bit.

Let me know asap. You would need a place to stay in Sendai Friday through Monday, and a flight to Osaka from Sendai on Monday. We will need your hotel name and info. We’ll set a hard time to pick you up (no more on-the-fly planning, please) Saturday morning, and we’ll prepare the details of the distribution so you simply join us for the day.

Once I hear back from you, we’ll proceed accordingly.

Thank you,
Jason

———-

From his May 19, 2011 reply: “… thanks for going out of your way to assist me in this important work.”

The attached photos show the extent of the day he witnessed with us, and it included hands-on involvement in a volunteer effort to distribute needed donations directly in a way that did not interfere with larger efforts underway.

Despite witnessing this, despite SFJ having been the colleagues with him in the field that day, despite his whole day having been about how volunteer relief efforts can work when managed properly, his op-ed told a tiny story of running to a higher hill and neglected to mention SFJ in any way.

Further, the following is from his paper, “The Tohoku Disasters: Preliminary Findings Concerning The Post Disaster Humanitarian Logistics Response” submitted to the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC:

“The research also highlighted the importance of proper and effective donation management. At the heart of the issue is the fact that, if left unchecked, the flow of non-priority (not needed) and low priority (items that may be needed later on and must be stored) supplies slowdown the flow of the high-priority supplies. Preventing this from happening consumes large amounts of resources as non/low priority supplies must be processed to prevent the collapse of DCs and entry points to the disaster area. For that reason, effective donation management would require a combination of: access control to the disaster area so that non/low priority goods are prevented to enter, or redirected to suitable processing points; public awareness campaigns aimed at education the general public, private and public sector executives about how and what to donate; proactive engagement of the news media; and, information systems to match supply to needs in the ground.”

Doubts similar to what’s expressed in the paragraph above are what Prof. Holguin-Veras cited when urging us to stop SFJ. From his March 16, 2011 email to me: “I am afraid that, in spite of your noble intentions, your campaign is likely to do more harm than good. The fundamental reason is that disasters prompt an emotional response on the parts of individuals that led them to donate ‘stuff.’ The sad part is that a very large component of what people donate is **not actually needed.**”

From my reply sent March 16, 2011: “We considered this, but know firsthand that socks are needed and we are accepting ONLY socks. That avoids the accumulation of unneeded items. Also, socks don’t break and don’t spoil. Because we are handling the logistics of the operation by receiving, sorting, and distributing, we will not burden the other relief groups with our effort.

We’re making it clear to people that this is not primary aid, but rather a small point of comfort provided to victims on their long journey back to normalcy.

Already, victims are holding up signs requesting socks. Survivors of the Hanshin quake in Kobe in 1995 praised the socks and letters they received.

Thank you for raising this concern. We’ll make sure that nobody is wasting their efforts. If we find that the campaign is not helpful, we’ll change tactics.”

On the SFJ website, I wrote that we had researched mistakes made by volunteer efforts in past disasters, and had checked with the Japanese government and postal service and local authorities to be sure our operation would be helpful and not harmful, and we received assurance that it would be. The basic reply was, “By all means, please help!”

We did so. The professor saw this, but never included our experience in his findings or his op-ed. Why is this? Could it be that the SFJ result contradicts his writings over the past two decades, and he didn’t want to reveal such? Why not mention that if not for SFJ, he would never have seen the real humanitarian efforts underway beyond the official parade route? Could it be that it was better for his career to mention only university colleagues rather than a local volunteer operation doing everything right, contradicting his previously expressed doubts?

In the end, Prof. Holguin-Veras confirmed the worst suspicions of the SFJ team members who complained that “it always goes this way with universities. They always study the wrong things in the wrong way to reach the conclusions they know in advance they want to reach.” In retrospect, they were right and I was wrong to have given Prof. Holguin-Veras the benefit of the doubt.

I hope this in-depth backgrounder on our day in the field and the interactions surrounding it gives you a better understanding of how disappointed we’ve been in Prof. Holguin-Veras, and why we’re sensitive to further disrespect by RPI.

What could have been a chance to show the right way to run a grassroots volunteer donation effort was instead turned into a career-boosting stunt by the professor. The refusal to consider real-life evidence that a well-run program can work wonders — even when it calls into question the professor’s previous advice — is a disservice to future survivors.

Sincerely,
Jason

These are the images that were attached:

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Trip Plan with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Trip Plan with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Volunteers Rumiko and Miwa Preparing the Navi

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Volunteers Rumiko and Miwa Preparing the Navi

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan’s Jason Kelly Meeting RPI Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan’s Jason Kelly Meeting RPI Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan’s Jason Kelly Driving Through the 
Ishinomaki Disaster Area with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan’s Jason Kelly Driving Through the
 Ishinomaki Disaster Area with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distributing Socks to Survivors 
as Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras Looks On

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distributing Socks to Survivors 
as Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras Looks On

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Distribution with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras Helping

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Distribution with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras Helping

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Recipients

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Recipients

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Recipients

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Recipients

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution Van in the Matsushima Disaster Zone

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution Van in the Matsushima Disaster Zone

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution in Higashi Matsushima 
as Jason Kelly, Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras, and Koutaro Ogata Look On

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution in Higashi Matsushima 
as Jason Kelly, Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras, and Koutaro Ogata Look On

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan volunteers Rumiko and Miwa
 Distributing Socks at a Shelter in Higashi Matsushima

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan volunteers Rumiko and Miwa
 Distributing Socks at a Shelter in Higashi Matsushima

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution to a Shelter in Higashi Matsushima
 with Volunteer Rumiko and Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution to a Shelter in Higashi Matsushima
 with Volunteer Rumiko and Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Volunteer Rumiko Speaks with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras
 in the Higashi Matsushima Disaster Zone

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Volunteer Rumiko Speaks with Prof. Jose Holguin-Veras
 in the Higashi Matsushima Disaster Zone

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution Location in Higashi Matsushima

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Distribution Location in Higashi Matsushima

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Recipients Looking Happy After Dark in Higashi Matsushima

May 21, 2011: Socks for Japan Sock Recipients Looking Happy After Dark in Higashi Matsushima

As of this post date, I have not heard back from Prof. Letchford. I sent him a note requesting, again:

<> that RPI stop using SFJ data for new purposes without first receiving permission from me,

and am now adding a new request because it’s clear Prof. Holguin-Veras was not forthcoming with Prof. Letchford regarding the lack of acknowledgment in his op-ed (apparently having claimed he did acknowledge SFJ with the tacked-on one-liner for the digital archive):

<> an apology from Prof. Holguin-Veras for failing to acknowledge in his op-ed that his “colleagues” referenced therein were not Japanese university professors but rather members of Socks for Japan, which planned and managed his field trip into the disaster zone. The apology should not be to Jason Kelly, as was tried in the footnote for the digital archive, but rather to Socks for Japan.

I’ll provide follow-up here as I receive it.

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