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Where to turn during an emergency abroad

3 Mins read
Ben Appel and Jakana Thomas framed in portrait circles, with a background of Nairobi National Park with backdrop of Nairobi's Skyscrapers, and a blurred gradient background

Two GPS classes tackle data collection for use in U.S. Department of State project focused on Kenya

Imagine you’re a U.S. citizen visiting Kenya — when suddenly a disaster strikes. Where would you turn for help to find the closest airports, hospitals or safe havens in your area? 

A new comprehensive list of emergency resources through the U.S. Department of State you’d likely rely on in that scenario will soon come to fruition, thanks to a project put together by students at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS).

Associate professor Benjamin Appel’s Quantitative Methods of International Relations class and students in associate professor Jakana Thomas’ New Civil Wars class got involved with the project through the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomacy Lab. The lab is an initiative through which the State Department works with faculty and students at universities across the nation to conduct research on various foreign policy challenges.

Initially, Thomas submitted a proposal for her class to work on the Kenya project. 

“The initial project description was fairly vague, but my proposal was clear that the students would deliver a literature review and a basic data analysis,” Thomas said. “After the bid was accepted, however, it became clear the embassy wanted us to deliver something different that required extensive technical skills.”

Thomas then reached out to Appel, as his class was specifically geared toward the statistical analysis of conflict data, and Appel happily accepted the project, though they were already into the second week of the quarter. 

“As soon as I told my students about it, they were 100% on board,” Appel said. “And the students have loved the project. It became a core part of the class for that term.”

With guidance from his contact at the State Department as to the specific data requested, Appel worked with his class of 13 students, letting them sort themselves into groups to tackle different parts of the project based on their interests and skill level, such as website production and data collection. 

“Some of this data they could easily just grab online, but with other data, they had to actually go and do some serious data collection by looking at newspaper articles, websites and more,” Appel said. “The research team had to download the data, clean the data, and then the other team had to painstakingly code things.”

Jasmine Moheb, BA/MIA ’23 candidate and student in Appel’s class, assisted with data collection and organization, assessing data points that would be relevant for U.S. citizens to know in a time of emergency. In her specific role, she worked with a classmate collecting data on cases of political violence that occurred through instances of terrorism in Kenya over the past decade.

“The purpose this would serve is to identify cases of violence — which we classified by level of severity, in terms of the number of fatalities that occurred — and specify which group conducted the attack,” Moheb said. 

This data was collected by using the University of Maryland’s START Consortium database, an institute with which Moheb interned during her time at UC San Diego. 

“It was really neat being able to bring together my past knowledge with the database and see how I could apply it to a real-time project that would be used by the State Department,” Moheb said.

Master of International Affairs (MIA) ’24 candidate Minh Nam Pham worked with another student in Appel’s class to create interactive maps illustrating the locations of terrorist attacks, as well as other key facilities such as airports or hospitals in Kenya. 

“My experience with international relations classes so far has been fairly academic, but this project is the first time that I truly translated what I have learned to something which is directly applicable and could promptly respond to the needs of people,” Pham said. “To me personally, this kind of initiative by the State Department is definitely a model that I can learn so that I can try to design something useful in my home country, Vietnam.”

Thomas’ class also produced separate reports for the U.S. embassy’s review and eventual use. 

“My students were broken into two groups: one group analyzing the risk of terrorism and one analyzing the risk of election violence in Kenya. The students delivered two reports examining these two types of security risks and provided tangible suggestions and recommendations that could be used by individual U.S. citizens abroad as well as embassy staff in Kenya,” Thomas explained. “Their suggestions focused specifically on the differential risks rural and urban areas of Kenya may experience.”

Master of Public Policy (MPP) ’23 candidate Yuchen Wang, a student in Appel’s class, said the experience of working on this real-world project throughout the quarter was incredibly rewarding. 

“Knowing that our work will have a real-world impact and help keep U.S. citizens in Kenya safe and informed was motivating and fulfilling,” Wang said. “It was also an opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in my graduate program to a real-world setting, which was both challenging and exciting. We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished and the impact our work will make.”

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Virginia Watson is the communications editor for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism with a minor in graphic design from Troy University.
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