What happens to people after they experience a disruptive event in their lives – a job loss, physical or emotional trauma, a natural disaster, a disease diagnosis, returning from war, or homelessness? These life changes, or invisible crises, can be debilitating on the people who are going through them. Following these events, people undergo a process of adjustment – a transition phase – as several taken-for-granted aspects of life, like routines, relationships, and roles, are changed dramatically.

Bryan Semaan

How people recover from these life disruptions, how they transition back to a normal, or ‘new normal,’ and the role that information and communication technologies (ICT) play in this recovery and transition are questions that School of Information Studies (iSchool) Assistant Professor Bryan Semaan will address with a National Science Foundation-funded grant to study transition resilience.

“These kinds of life disruptions, both big and small, are not new, but what is new is that people have access to ICTs, such as mobile and social media, with which they can navigate crises—or, be resilient in the aftermath of these crises,” explained Semaan. “These technologies can improve peoples’ resilience to disruptions, but we lack deep and systematic knowledge about how ICTs actually enable resiliency, and my research aims to address this.”

One population that Semaan and his research partners will focus on is veterans, and how they handle their return to civilian life after their service ends.

“What I’ve found in working with the veteran population on other projects is that they’re trying very hard to become civilians and reintegrate into their post-service lives, but they’re having a difficult time doing it.” Semaan said. “This project is about trying to understand the range of issues they’re experiencing with their transitions, and how they are using technology to be resilient. From there, I want to identify the specific technology needs they have and figure out how we might be able to establish new technology platforms to help with this process.” 

One of the most important aspects of this research, Semaan believes, lies in assessing the services that are available to veterans after they return to civilian life.

“Often, these services aren’t inclusive of veteran voices in the process, discovering what their needs are in a post-service life,” Semaan said. “What’s missing is the vet’s perspective – and their family’s perspective – about the transition process. I want to shed light on the hidden pieces of their transitions.”

Semaan will collaborate on this research with Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) and the Department of Veteran Affairs at the Syracuse VA Medical Center. Collaborators include Nicholas Armstrong, Senior Director for Research and Evaluation at the IVMF, and Kyle Possemato, a psychologist at the VA. 

“Our overall goal is to provide information that will help to improve existing organizational infrastructures – like the VA – and identify what services can they provide for transition,” Semaan said. “In the military, there’s a lot of time spent in building up soldiers, in training them to be a part of their unit, but there’s just a few weeks spent on their transition out of the military, if that.”

Part of Semaan’s research will involve building a new software system and wearable device that he hopes will provide veterans with the ability to better manage stressful events brought on by their post-transition lives.

“We’re looking to create a new type of device that recognizes stress events, and gives veterans the ability to manage these events on their own as they arise,” he explained. “It will not only have detection elements, but also reflection and logging capabilities. We want to provide a documentation of what they are experiencing over time, so that they can self-identify any trends – both negative and positive – in their lives.”

The final component of the research that Semaan and his team are conducting includes creating a network or social media space for veterans to connect with each other.

“We want to give veterans the ability to connect with other veterans who might be having the same issues with transitions that they are, a type of internal social network,” Semaan explained. “It might be connected with Facebook, or it might be a standalone network, we haven’t determined that yet.”

Once the research team has conducted their service member interviews, built their software platform, and created the connected network, they hope to turn the technology and data over to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IVMF to use as part of their services for veterans.

“The VA is under resourced right now, so this fills an immediate need to help improve how service members transition out of the military,” Semaan said. “And while the veterans model is probably the most severe need, there are also applications for these devices and technologies in other areas, such as people suffering from mental health conditions, chronic illnesses, and refugees fleeing war-torn areas, just to name a few.” 

The NSF-funded project, Transition Resilience: Navigating Invisible Crises with ICTs, was awarded $173,205 and will run through May, 2019.