Building Better Disaster Response and Resilience with Information and Technology

For nearly five years I have been in higher education exploring how information and technology can improve disaster response and resilience. I have explored complex issues in great detail and I have learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities being faced by communities, organizations and people trying to leverage information and technology to better respond to disasters and build resilience.

But as I begin my transition back to the working world in the near future, I am forced to reflect on how I can apply this new knowledge to help address current problems while also preparing for an innovative future beyond what we can imagine today. I find myself writing about my philosophy on leveraging information and technology to improve disaster response and resilience. This philosophy will guide me in my career and allow me to apply and transform my knowledge into pragmatic and sustainable change that pushes disaster response and resilience to achieve better outcomes with information and technology.

My Philosophy

I subscribe to the notion that a specific approach helps focus change and improvement. The approach of having good people, processes and products is essential to guide small businesses through significant growth and change toward profitability. For disaster response and resilience, focusing on the following five initiatives will help communities, organizations and people achieve better outcomes with information and technology: 

  1. Understanding the value that information and technology provides to different people in different situations.
  2. Improving policies that better enable data and information sharing while preserving privacy and security.
  3. Developing better programs that incentivize sustainable disaster information and technology innovation, research and education.
  4. Designing scalable and consistent ways to process (e.g., collect, manage, analyze and share) data and information across a variety of information and technology systems.
  5. Creating new products (technical and non-technical) that deliver significant value to communities, organizations and people responding to and affected by disasters

Beginning to address these complex initiatives starts with a paradigm shift in thinking that focuses on the value of information and how information systems, separate from technology systems, can improve disaster response and resilience. In addition, it requires concurrently aligning policies, programs, processes and products to overcome the unique nuances and complexities of disaster response and resilience.

Origins of My Philosophy

My philosophy on improving disaster response and resilience with information and technology is based on five years of intense study and reflection that culminate in new paradigms and theories. It represents my foundational beliefs that are influenced by two primary issues:

1) Information systems are different from technology systems

An information system is a conceptual understanding of who needs what information and when, and how it needs to be delivered to them. It helps describe the larger organizational systems that are being supported and understand the unique nuances and complexities of disaster response and resilience. An information system is also technology agnostic as it is about understanding why, how, when and for whom information is needed. Unfortunately, disaster information systems have received little attention over the years in both research and practice.

A technology system is a specific tool that helps manage information as it moves from its raw form (or original location) to its relevant and actionable form for the consumer. The value of technology systems is that they primarily help with time and effort intensive processes such as collecting, managing, analyzing, and sharing data and information as well as perform functions that humans can’t do (e.g., analyze big data).

However, if an information system is not well defined or understood, the supporting technology systems will only provide marginal benefits. This is, in part, why we have seen limited adoption and diffusion of new and innovative technologies despite there being a plethora of ideas and innovations. New and innovative technology systems need to reflect the real-world complexities of disaster response and resilience information systems; otherwise their adoption and diffusion will be slow with marginal benefits. Someone needs to be looking out for how technology systems integrate with information systems.  

2) Disaster information and technology policies, programs, and processes are misaligned

Disaster response and resilience is a complex industry and profession that has not done a thorough job looking strategically and comprehensively at the impediments to effective information and technology systems. This has resulted in misaligned policies, programs, processes and products that stall innovation and hamper sector-wide progress and achievement. For example, attempts to develop and track meaningful response and resilience metrics are hampered by the inability to get reliable data and information about those metrics quickly and easily. The impediments though, are not due to a failure of ideas or technology. Rather the impediments are due to a complex working environment/profession that:

  1. Lacks understanding about the discrete value of information for different situations as well as different communities, organizations, and people.
  2. Has policies that primarily focus on how to protect and secure rather than share data and information.
  3. Lacks grants and programs that specifically and adequately focus on information system projects, research, and curricula.
  4. Develops custom and ad hoc processes to collect, manage, analyze and share data and information that result in missed opportunities for leveraging economies of scale and in high sunk costs that disincentive change.
  5. Seeks out technological solutions that conform more to existing policies, programs, processes and products rather than fundamental need.

The Importance of Sharing My Philosophy

It is important to share my philosophy because it helps inform employers, clients, partners, readers, etc. of my approach to leveraging information and technology. This approach, combined with my expertise and strengths, is why I am attracted to positions that help challenge the status quo and lead to innovation and systemic change. These include disaster information and technology positions related to:

  • Strategy and policy
  • Program/project management
  • Public-private partnerships
  • Product management
  • Education and training
  • Applied research and evaluation