Redefining Information Requirements for Crisis Response

Developing information requirements for crisis response is a tedious and flawed process filled with many uncertainties about the situation and the response. While we can take an honest stab at knowing what different responders need, when, and how, our unilateral focus on needed information stymies the best of intentions: historical learning is only as good as a similar future, which is rarely the case; and visioning workshops are only as good as the ability to identify the uncertainties that lie ahead, a very difficult task with severe consequences if something is missed. 

While decisions can be made without needed information based on expertise and experience, this is far from ideal in a complex adaptive system such as crisis response (another important topic, but no room in this post!). Every move one makes (small or large) can have significant positive and/or negative impacts on system performance, not to mention possible interaction effects of different decisions and actions. Information is therefore a lifeline for decision makers when evaluating the consequences of different decisions and actions. Information provides important cues that help decision makers develop accurate representations of the system and the situation in order to better leverage their expertise and experience.

In more certain work environments with repeatable tasks, decisions, and problems (e.g., manufacturing), information requirements can be refined through thorough investigation and iterative development. But crisis response is far more uncertain about the tasks, decisions, and problems that will be encountered. Planning activities can help, but they will never be 100% ready. Unanticipated situations will always be encountered for which one must react in the moment. Additionally, information are often not created and available until a crisis occurs, so it is hard to plan for its use.  

We need a dedicated strategy and approach to information management (collection, processing, and sharing of data/information) that balances flexibility with standardization and that extends beyond technical interoperability (similar to our response management paradigms). People, policies, programs, processes, and products all need to align to inform and improve the handling of the known-knowns (e.g., will set up a point of distribution), the known-unknowns (e.g., how public will react), and the unknown-unknowns (e.g. unforeseen circumstances) encountered during a crisis response. 

This is not an easy endeavor and requires radically different thinking that embraces the uncertainty associated with crisis response. We are doing ourselves a disservice if we focus on predictable information needs in an environment where the most valuable information is unpredictable! 

Tackling this issue will likely take the better part of my career, but it is important to start somewhere. As you consider your information requirements, I suggest you consider the following information requirement types:

Type A - Clearly Needed Information

First, it is important to outline the information that is clearly known to be needed. Bite off the top layer of information needed by each role. These are the absolutes that you know the role(s) need to have. Be judicious, though, as your information management plan will most definitely provide you with ALL this information and you don't want to overload responders. 

Type B - Likely Helpful Information

Second, consider what information should not be delivered, but rather immediately available to responders if they decide they need it. This is information one could presume might be needed, but is hard to define when, where and how it will be useful. This information should be made available and easily accessible to responders without distracting or overloading them.

Type C - Supporting Information Sources

Lastly, because it is unlikely that you will have envisioned all possible information needs, consider how your responders can access different sources of information that will allow them to find the information they need on the spot. This is hard as you need to build relationships and technical integrations ahead of time to execute well.  

There are two things to notice about my suggested information requirement types. First, I call them types rather than levels. This is because the relationship between them is dimensional, not linear or hierarchical. Type C information can be just as important as Type A information. Second, they assume a "role-based" perspective on information requirements gathering. Collecting information requirements at an organizational level obfuscates the information needs of individual responders who are the true consumers of information. Plus, if you know the role-based information needs of individual responders, you can more easily discern the organization's overall information needs through aggregation and comparison of all the information required in each role. This then sets you up to develop an information system that meets organizational needs through knowledge of individual responders' information needs.   

I hope this helps you expand your understanding of requirements gathering and rethink what is "needed" in light of the many uncertainties that crises bring. The goal here is to intentionally and strategically approach information management such that you are giving your responders the best possible chance of obtaining available information they need, when and how they need it. I don't address the timing aspects and delivery methods of information needs here, but they are indeed also very important (perhaps another blog post!). 

I look forward to your comments!