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IUPUI Magazine

Technology Issue

Making a difference

How the web can affect lives half a world away

Article by Ric Burrous

Not Seen Not Heard was conceived and produced over a five-month period during the summer and fall of 2005. Zach Shields traveled to Indonesia in July to obtain information and video footage while Chris Podell began developing design and interface plans for a capstone project at the end of their senior year at IUPUI.

Their hope, at the least, is to provide a voice for those still in need on the most remote islands of Indonesia nearly a year after the devastation. They would like to lend these stories to any humanitarian organizations in order to raise awareness and possible funding so that rehabilitation programs can continue.

Even after the media blitz of a natural disaster such as this is over, there is still a struggle to provide a standard of living in countless communities. They hope this will serve as an example of forgotten survivors, not only of natural disasters, but of poverty, sickness and hunger all around the world.

In December 2004, a major earthquake near the island nation of Indonesia launched a disastrous tsunami that swept throughout that country and virtually the entire Indian Ocean. Just over three months later, another major quake in the same locale caused more death and devastation in the islands of the world's fourth most populous country.

And the ripples reached the halls of IUPUI's Informatics & Communications Technology Complex (ICTC) building and the IU School of Informatics, sweeping up a pair of soon-to-be-graduates in search of a capstone project that would complete their college careers with a flourish.

Little did Chris Podell and Zach Shields know how much those earthquakes would shake up their own lives. Since that time, they've built an internationally renowned Web site called Not Seen Not Heard (they call it NSNH, for short), completed their degree work with flying colors, and — oh, by the way — earned a 2006 Webby Award, the online version of an Oscar!

More than a grade

"Zach and I both are the type of people that fully engage ourselves in our work," says Podell. "We were trying to think of project ideas that would actual mean something to someone besides ourselves, a teacher and our parents. We both figured that if we were going to commit five or six months to build a project, we should do something that would mean something besides a grade."

Fate intervened, Shields adds. The two learned that the three sons of Darrell Bailey, the associate dean of Informatics at IUPUI, were volunteering in the clean-up effort in Indonesia. During their work, the Bailey boys connected with a relief organization called Island Aid, and when Shields and Podell expressed an interest in using their technological skills to support the rebuilding efforts, the Baileys were only too happy to provide the introductions. Before long, Shields was winging his way to Sumatra, video camera in hand, the outline of a vision he shared with Podell in his mind.

Making a Difference

"Dr. Bailey's sons, Phil, Adam and Marshall, had given me a lot of good ideas of things to capture on video," says Shields, who says he was profoundly moved by many of the tales he heard and saw, most notably by the story of two young girls who were badly burned in a fire triggered by the quake.

"At heart, I'm a storyteller, though not always on video," he adds. "But I've always been a visual person, and storytelling is what I've always wanted to do, so for me, Not Seen Not Heard was a natural."

Although the family of the South Bend native is accustomed to his passion for blending technology and storytelling, he admits "they weren't thrilled" by his decision to visit the disaster-wracked region around Sumatra, especially since he'd just turned 21. "They thought I could find some other way to help out," he laughs. "But now I think they're happy I went."

So were the two students.

Project more than classwork

"The project itself became a combination of a labor of love and an exercise in our skill and imagination," says Podell. "We really wanted to create an experience, to feature stories told by the survivors about the recovery effort, and the need that is still abundant."

Not Seen Not Heard started out as an awareness-building site, but Podell and Shields quickly decided to use the site as a fund-raising tool to help remote villages rebuild, and to help the two young girls get medical treatment for their burns.

"It was an amazing thing to see, the devastation that was still there months after the second quake hit," says Shields. "The girls' village is s remote that you can't drive there, you can'fly there in a plane — you can't even land a helicopter there! You have to walk in, and rebuilding is a difficult task."

The remoteness, Shields adds, is part of the reason that Podell created the name Not Seen Not Heard. "The whole theme of our documentary is to tell the stories of people whose stories have not been seen or heard," he adds. "Most of the world's attention went to the victims of the tsunami, but most people didn't hear much about the second quake and the people who were affected by both."

That theme echoed around Podell's mind. "I kept hearing that old saying in the back of my mind throughout the project: ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to see it fall, does it still make a sound?'" says Podell.

Making experience real

Their determination to make the experience real for those who live thousands of miles away affected the way Not Seen Not Heard was built.

"We wanted to use video for a couple of reasons," says Podell. "One, at the time, video online was very much a new thing. We wanted to push ourselves, and the technology. Two, video can make a deeper connection with its viewer. We used the survivors to tell the story using captions to translate what they were saying — it was more real!"

"We didn't want to put too much text in there," adds Shields. "We wanted to make it all visual, with little intros. It needed to be visual, so that people can experience just a small piece of what life was like for these islanders whose lives were turned upside down."

From an academic standpoint, the project was straightforward. "We each had our distinct roles," says Shields. "We came up with the overall plan, decided which themes to address, then Chris came up with the architecture of the site, and I plugged in the stories and the video."

That doesn't mean the task was easy. Editing forced tough choices, and deadlines were familiar "foes" as they raced to complete the project on time.

"I probably shot 16, maybe 17 hours worth of footage on the islands," says Shields. "But by the time we got done, we'd had to trim it down to anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour's worth of stories. Some of the things were difficult to leave out, but once we knew which stories we wanted to tell, everything came together pretty well."

"Zach knew what he had, and I'd seen the raw, uncut clips," Podell adds. "But the video hadn't even finished rendering the morning of the project's due date." But the site was ready, and both feel it accomplished its primary goal. "The idea behind the look and feel of the project was a 'left-behind journal,' stories that survived the disaster."

Faculty provided support

Both alumni had unabashed praise for several Informatics faculty members who helped keep Not Seen Not Heard moving forward.

"Joe Defazio, Clint Koch and Ricardo Laranja are at the top of my list," says Podell. "All of them were available to us at ungodly hours, whenever we needed them. I still remember seeing Clint at 3 in the morning at the labs three weeks before the end of the semester, working with students (on their capstone projects). They are all so committed to helping students achieve their full potential."

Laranja played a key role in the final presentation of Not Seen Not Heard, creating much of the music that gives the Web site an emotional foundation.

"The whole theme of our documentary is to tell the stories of people whose stories have not been seen or heard"

"He was amazing," laughs Shields. "We were in his studio one night, showing him what we'd come up with, and he started playing music that he was composing on the spot. Chris and I told him that he'd hit the mood we were looking for, so he wound up putting together the music for Not Seen Not Heard."

Staying in touch

The two IUPUI graduates have stayed in touch with those who touched their lives.

"Zach and I have been in constant contact with Rick Cameron, the director of Island Aid who was featured in a couple of the videos," says Podell. "We both want to keep up with what is going on with the people on the island."

Shields is pleased that Not Seen Not Heard has helped raise awareness of what Island Aid does, and even more about the fact that the village girls they wanted so badly to help have had surgery for their burn injuries. "That is really cool," he says.

The chance to be part of the Webby awards celebration in New York City also was cool.

"We had a great time," says Podell. "Just listening to the names of the different companies being called for awards and knowing that we won an award in the same competition was pretty cool."

Not Seen Not Heard was honored along with some other familiar names: political columnist Thomas Friedman; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (an IU grad himself); Google; and MySpace.

"The biggest thing was it got people to look at the site," adds Shields. "As soon as we got the nomination, people started looking at the site. After that, the site was posted and stories began to come out, and started to spread the word."

The Web site leaves both firmly committed toward careers in fields not so different from what they already have achieved.

"Working with an interactive medium to tell compelling stories in a new way is really what I want to do," says Podell. "I think video is going to play a large role in that. Ultimately, I want to run my own interactive shop."

"Not long after graduation I was at a job interview and they started talking about what it would be like, and I remember thinking 'wait a minute; I've just done this,'" laughs Shields, who wants to use his technological skills to enhance his love of storytelling.

"I know I'm a different person after going through the whole project," adds Shields. "Getting immersed in the project, hearing people's stories face to face, it's changed me, changed the way I do things in my life. It's helped me be more effective in my work, and in my life. I don't take things for granted each day; I have a goal when I do things.

When you see people like the Indonesians whose stories we featured living their life after such devastation, it's hard not to feel that way."