Why is Disaster Information Management So Hard?

Information is one of the most important commodities in disaster management, including for operations and public awareness.  In recent years as the size, scale and complexity of disasters have increased dramatically, the need for information systems that help us effectively manage information is more important than ever.  As such, we need to consider the relative strengths and weakness of humans and computers and understand the totality of information issues that we encounter as an industry.  

Carver, L., & Turoff, M. (2007). Human-computer interaction: the human and computer as a team in emergency management information systems. Communications of the ACM, 50(3), 33–38.

But we are only beginning to scratch the surface on how to get the right information to the right people at the right time in the right way.  Theoretically this should be an easy task.  But the reality is that we operate in complex and dynamic environments that make effective information management difficult.  We rely heavily on our experience and expertise to get us through disasters; and our existing technical systems (in design and practice) tend to reflect organizational priorities rather than the full-scope of inter-organizational and community-wide objectives. 

There is so much more possible if we can think more strategically about how we manage and share information during a response.  What if information could play a larger and more central role in our decision making?  What if we had all the information at our fingertips to make the best decision?  What if there was one dashboard we could see everything that our jurisdiction neighbors are doing, what resources are deployed or waiting for assignment, and what missions are awaiting resource assignment?  And what if we could then take action and have the system automatically update for everyone? 

First, though, we need to understand some of our existing information sharing problems.  Then we can begin to look at other issues in systematic ways and develop truly meaningful information management solutions.  Looking at the different parts of information management individually is simply inadequate for our complex and dynamic information needs.  There are many reasons for this and I highlight a couple of the challenges below. 

Bharosa and Janssen (2010) provide a great overview of information sharing issues based on different levels of the problem.  At the community level, they show that organizational silos are present and there is a lack of incentive for inter-organizational information sharing.  At the agency or organization level, there is a reliance on protocols and information sharing up and down the operational hierarchy.  At the individual level, there are problems with information overload, not knowing what to share, ability to process information and overall information quality.  

Bharosa, N., Lee, J., & Janssen, M. (2010). Challenges and obstacles in sharing and coordinating information during multi-agency disaster response: Propositions from field exercises. Information Systems Frontiers, 12(1), 49–65. doi:10.1007/s10796-009-9174-z

Contrastingly, Day, Junglas and Silva (2009) identify more mechanistic problems with information sharing and narrow down the issues to eight key impediments surrounding information collection, processing and sharing.  Many people have experienced one or more of these impediments in their operations as they attempt to gain situation awareness and make good decisions.  As you develop your information management strategy for your organization, consider how each of your systems hinders or improves these impediments.   

Day, J. M., Junglas, I., & Silva, L. (2009). Information flow impediments in disaster relief supply chains. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 10(8), 1.

There are also issues with knowing when information is needed and by whom.  I also suspect there are many opinions and thoughts on this.  

I would really like to hear from you about your challenges with information?  What are they?  What do you think the root cause is?

P.S.  This is largely the subject of my research and I hope to contribute a lot more to this discussion in the next year.  I always equate this issue to trying to peel back the layers of an onion; once you peel back one layer, you find there are many more layers to go!