Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health are conducting a study to determine if collaborative virtual environments improve public health preparedness and response planning. The study is funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The project will use Second Life, a Web-based virtual world in which users move and interact in simulated 3-D spaces, to train public health workers in emergency preparedness.
UIC researchers will recruit 40 local health departments from across the United States to participate in the study. Half of the participants will use the virtual environment to support their emergency preparedness planning and half will use a traditional meeting approach to planning.
Ninety-nine percent of public health departments across the country train public health workers for emergency situations by using traditional table-top exercises or live simulated drills, according to Colleen Monahan, principal investigator of the study and director of the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education at the UIC School of Public Health.
Traditional training methods are often costly, unrealistic, limited to a few participants at a given time and location, require significant advanced planning, and provide only one particular scenario.
"We believe that using virtual environments will improve collaboration across agencies and jurisdictions, raise awareness about planning for vulnerable populations, increase the realism in the training exercise, allow participants to participate in different scenarios, and allow emergency responders to return to the training exercise at their convenience for ongoing training," said Monahan.
The researchers will collect data through surveys and directly from the virtual environment to learn how the participants used the virtual training, where they visited, and how long they stayed.
The group receiving traditional training will be surveyed after the completion of the exercise to determine the effectiveness of training.
The Center for the Advancement of Distance Education at the UIC School of Public Health brings innovative technologies, such as games and simulations, to various audiences, primarily in the field of health.
The center's work in collaborative virtual environments includes training federal, state and local emergency workers and volunteers in scenarios ranging from pandemic influenza to bioterrorism and "dirty bombs."
Co-principal investigators are Kevin Harvey and Steve Jones from UIC. The study is part of the CDC-funded Public Health Preparedness Research Center at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.