3 Reasons Why Disaster Information is SO Important

For all the talk about about how we need better information delivered in better ways, I am struck by how easily people lose sight of why it is needed in the first place.  After all, information that you don't need is really not helpful and can cause big problems.  You can experience information overload, be distracted from your goals or tasks, or be unduly influenced by extraneous information.  

Whether you are looking for information before, during or after disasters, there are three reasons why good information is important:

1) Situation Awareness - Information helps responders understand the situation

Information helps us identify operational gaps and enables us to effectively coordinate resources.  Knowing the gaps along with what is going on and who is doing what is the heart of situational awareness.  Without good awareness, though, it can feel like you are making a decision in a vacuum or hedging your bets on risky decisions more than you would like.  Generally speaking, the more situational awareness you have, the more you know that you are not duplicating effort and are prioritizing the right issues. 

Good situational awareness strikes the right balance between information deficiency and information overload.  It also incorporates three levels of information (Endsley, 1995):

  1. Perception - Knowing the elements of the situation and environment that are pertinent to your job.  They can include things like situation monitoring and cue detection that helps inform your own picture of what is happening.
  2. Comprehension - Relating and synthesizing the information from Level 1 against the decisions you need to make and your overall objectives.   At this state, you put your perception information into context with your response objective(s) and decision(s) to better understand the situation.  
  3. Projection - Relating to what might happen and one's ability to see the possible trajectories of the events taking place or decisions you make.  You need to have perception and comprehension of the current situation in order for future projections, anticipations and estimates to be effective.  

2) Decision Support - Information helps responders make better decisions 

For some decisions, a general knowledge of what is going on and who is doing what is not sufficient.  General information about the situation won't suffice as you need more specific and focused information to make complex and important decisions.  The goal is to make the best decisions given the information at your disposal that will result in the best outcomes.  For example, choosing to initiate a community-wide evacuation is a big decision with many variables.  A decision support tool that manages information effectively can help you project the impact of a storm (and impact of evacuation) and help you make the decision whether evacuation is the best course of action.  Additionally, knowing the capabilities of and the potential for secondary impacts (i.e., residual flooding) to possible shelter locations will greatly inform your choice of shelter openings.  

3) Outcome Metrics - Information helps us know if we are [being] successful

Information is the key commodity in the feedback loop that shows the failures/success of our decisions and interventions.  Just because a decision is made doesn't automatically mean that the decision and approach is effective.  Continuous feedback is important to take corrective action in a timely manner.   But information doesn't just show success OR failure.  The information that is most useful is usually in between the two in some fuzzy area that requires contextualization and understanding of the dynamics of the situation.  Outcome metrics in disaster management is very difficult and incorporating them take time and experience.  

For example, what if you begin to experience an unanticipated surge of people on the road at 5pm that are clogging your 2 major arteries?  Is evacuation a complete failure?  No.  But does this perhaps require a different approach?  Perhaps you might add additional law enforcement and tow trucks to help keep traffic moving or develop an on-the-spot traffic management plan for a 3rd artery.  But your pre-established metrics indicate that you can still safely evacuate everyone in time because 10,000 people have already left and there is only 3,000 more to go.  As a result, your decision to re-appropriate resources might change.  (NOTE:  This is merely an example.  I am not advocating for letting people "sit" in their cars on the highway if that can be avoided.  This also does not fully address the breadth of "outcome metrics" and how they can be used most effectively)      

4) BONUS - Information as aid  

Collecting information for your own situational awareness and decision making is a rather selfish way of thinking about information.  Information is really a form of aid to the public as well as your response partners.  Information is vital to their success as well.  In addition, disseminating good information in the right formats (i.e., machine readable, real-time access, social media, etc.) for your audience(s) helps improve the community's outcomes as well.  They need information just as much as you do to accomplish their priorities and objectives.  The more they are self-sufficient and armed with the right information, the less burden you carry to take care of others.  

Does this jive?  Why else is information important to you?