Are Disaster Infographics Still Cool? Useful?

Are Disaster Infographics Still Cool? Useful?

It seems like every week or month, I get "the latest" disaster infographic in my inbox. Inforgraphics have become popular in recent years to communicate complicated topics and data. There are infographics on social media, types of hazards, impact to businesses, emergency management careers, etc. I keep a Pinterest board for these types of graphics (see below).  

Because I am largely a curator of this information, not a consumer, I am not clear how infographics have helped the industry. Are disaster infographics useful? How have they helped? Are they effective? Have you used any in your work? If so, how?

Check out of a few of the infographics below and let me know what you think.

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Developing Accurate, Complete and Current Information is a BAD Idea

Developing Accurate, Complete and Current Information is a BAD Idea

This quote comes from a seasoned emergency manager in a recent Emergency Management Magazine article.  Simply said, I don't agree with this key point.  This kind of thinking leads us down a very dangerous path as it builds up false expectations and breads unrealistic thinking.  

"Accurate, complete, and current" information is a nice goal, but entirely impractical and unrealistic in reality.  In a recent email listserv conversation, a number of very experienced information managers discussed the difficulty in simply keeping up with the flow of information during a disaster.  Perhaps this can be better achieved 

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Curate Dashboards NOT Documents in Disasters

Curate Dashboards NOT Documents in Disasters

The goal of any information or intelligence unit  in a disaster is to produce information useful for decision makers.  Information managers, though, curate and analyze information into static and overly-standardized reports that are hard to interact with and update with new and different data and information.  

Instead, information managers should focus on publishing information into dynamic dashboards that can be further manipulated by disaster decision makers at their convenience.  This is because decision makers may want to quickly...

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What Should Researchers Know About First Responders?

I have been invited to speak next Thursday on a panel at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Academic Research Symposium.  The title of the panel is "Social Media Research for First Responders and Analysts" and it's goal is " help researchers understand what operational capability gaps need to be filled."

In hopes of informing my panel talk, I want to ask you what should researchers know about the operational needs of first responders?  Especially as it relates to social media!

I am excited about this workshop because it starts to put practitioners with academics in hopes of aligning the priorities of both worlds.  In fact, a new term is emerging called the "pracademic."  The pracademic has experience as both a practitioner and an academic and chooses to work to align the worlds so that academic research can be as applicable as possible.  Patrick Meier captures this well as "scholar-practioner" in Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs.

Some prior practioner-based gap analysis work has already been done on this by DHS's Virtual Social Media Working Group (of which I am a member).  In June of this year, the VSMWG released Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy.  The report highlighted many of the success and learning points regarding social media.  On page 29, it highlights a number of technology, process, and policy gaps requiring further attention.  The major themes included:

  • Big Data
  • Compliance and Requirements
  • Funding
  • Standards, Training, and Guidance
  • Policy and Process
  • Partnerships
  • Technology, Tools, and Features

I will undoubtedly speak to these gaps, but other feedback and thoughts would be helpful and greatly appreciated!

#OpenData and Disaster Management

Beth NoveckAs I reflect on the past month in my Government 3.0 class with Beth Noveck, I am reminded of how much I am learning and how much it relates to my current and future work in Disaster Management.  Overall, this class is an opportunity to learn about concurrent and ongoing initiatives that are furthering the goals of government and its constituents.  But more importantly, the class has allowed me to translate the many things going on government wide to the unique challenges of Disaster Management.
Specifically, disaster management suffers from a lack of "open data" from which to address some of the unique challenges such as scalability and the infrequency of events.

The Unique Challenges of Disaster Management

Scalability.  We plan and prepare for events the best we can by building response capacity and training our staff, volunteers, and partners to respond appropriately; but at the end of the day when a disaster strikes, we need more resources that help us deal with the volumes of information and needs that are coming from every direction.  In addition, the more complex the incident, the more important effective coordination is as more and more response partners join the response.

The more data that is easily available in machine readable format, the more we can innovate with better applications that allow us to slice and dice data to turn it into actionable information for decision-making at all levels and parts of the response.  As a result, we as the collective response can make more informed real-time decisions that begin to really do the greatest good for the greatest number.  The more people (citizens included) with access to the right information at the right time can help alleviate the response burdens of governments and non-profits during major disasters.

Exceptional Emergency Management volunteers re...

High Impact/Low Frequency.  Many industries benefit from the mounds of data they sit on for consistent and repeatable events and processes.  As a result, they are better able to learn and adapt to better manage risk.  However, we are often planning for sentinel events that we may or may not know will occur and for which we often don't know the exact impacts.  As a result, we make many planning assumptions based on a combination of scientific evidence, experience and pure conjecture.  We need better "response data" to validate our assumptions and activities.  What is it about our response that really worked well?  How come?

We work hard to complete after action reports that detail lessons learned and document best practices. contains a lot of these reports that are accessible to other industry professionals.  But who has the time to sift through everything?  What if you could slice and dice all the information from every report to help answer your specific questions?  What what if we could index all of the data and information contained in these documents to identify national trends?   Our ability to learn from our past would skyrocket.

Open data is not just about the ability to view it, it is about the ability to mash it together to gain new insights that were previously undetectable.

However, our existing evidence-base is largely anecdotal and based on subject matter expertise only.  Ongoing research is changing our understanding of management and coordination, but decisions are still made this way based on anecdotal evident and expertise.  So what if we could add meaningful metrics and data to the equation?  Essentially, open data would help us review not what worked and what didn't, but the degree to which it worked or didn't work.  Data can come from internal systems or even external systems.  The more "open" and available it is, the better chance we have to collect meaningful data that helps us learn from our past.

Interdependencies.  If we could everything alone, we wouldn't be facing many of the challenges we face today.  However, we need to balance the anticipated risk with our capabilities in a fiscally responsible,  yet politically acceptable manner.   So we turn to our neighbors, non-profits, private sector organizations and other government agencies to become force multipliers.   This creates significant coordination and management challenges as the list grows and grows.  We need more data about what these relationships look like.

English: Datasets in the Linking Open Data pro...

Data allows us to actually map interdependencies that could potentially result in catastrophic failures during an event.   We can also better identify and prioritize these interdependencies to help improve system resielence.  After all, regardless of where or how we operate, we ALWAYS operate in some sort of system that has to work together in order to perform well.  MindAlliance has a great tool that helps organizations identify gaps and weakness is their preparedness.  With additional data, we can further validate planning assumptions in relationship to our dependencies to help distribute risk as best as possible.

English: President Clinton spends a moment wit...Government Led, Community Reliant.  Building off the issues with interdependencies, we also have a mismatch occurring in that initiatives are often government led, but effective responses to disasters are extraordinarily community reliant.  President Obama and FEMA have picked up on this issue with their "Whole Community" approach outlined in PPD-8.  But in moving forward, do we have the resources needed for a true "Whole Community" approach?  In the past, many great initiatives have simply failed due to a lack of funding or time (or the next disaster).

Data will help us prioritize our efforts for maximum effectiveness.  And if the whole community is to participate, they need to data in which to help.  The more data we can work with, we can turn planning and interdependency "assumptions" into "factual" planning points that leave us better prepared for the impacts we actually face, not just what we "think" we face.  Essentially, open data can really help us perform better risk and gap analyses to better inform our mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts.

"Zero Fail."  This term has been thrown around a lot in the industry.  Most often, it is used in the context of fear for trying something new.  Essentially, we need to do what we know works in order to not "fail."  Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Gustav, Irene, and Sandy are quickly showing how inadequate this assumption is.  Our missions are extraordinarily important, but failures are how we learn best.  I would take this a step further and argue that mini-failures are likely the best way of learning.  Eric Reis's book The Lean Startup, provides some great anecdotes for failing fast, but still accomplishing the mission.

Developing an "experimentation" culture based on real-time and meaningful data is essential.  Data will helps us fail fast, while still helping us accomplish our mission.  As a result, we can better identify ways to mitigate failure in the future and maximize the effectiveness of our response.  We are always hailed as a "dynamic" industry; but what if we could be even more dynamic to fail and react in the moment?  What if we could change course easily?  Open data enables these things.  Granted, some of this may be a few years off, but it highlights what is possible, even more so than we might think!

Overall, #OpenData represents one of the most important ways we can learn and advance the industry better when dealing with the unique challenges of the industry.

What do you think?  Have you had any wins with OpenData at your organization or in your community?  What have you been able to build with open data?

Innovation at the Sahana Software Foundation: Interview with Mark Prutsalis

Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Prutsalis from the Sahana Software Foundation.  We spoke for a while on the history and vision for Sahana, a non-profit organization developing open source software for disaster management and humanitarian needs.  In recent years, it has had a lot of success and is poised to continue. Some highlights from the audio below:

  • Sahana was built by a local technology group in the aftermath if the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.
  • In 2009, the local technology group discovered they had a different mission and Mark took it over as part of the Sahana Software Foundation.
  • New York City, Los Angeles, and International Red Cross all use Sahana software.
  • Current software version is "hard to use out of the box" and development focus right now is on project requirements.
  • There are plans to become more strategic and shift to an "expert system" that is easier to implement and has features based on best practices, not just customer requirements.  Hosted solutions and less technical and operational customization will be required in the future.
  • However, Sahana is trying to build solutions that don't yet exist in the market.
  • The ability to scale operations with hundreds of thousands of people and sites is a priority for Sahana to better enable real-time planning and management.
  • Haiti earthquake in 2010 was a "watershed moment" for Sahana where it was able to crowdsource and geo-locate almost all 150-160 hospitals in Haiti within 24 hours.  Only two couldn't be geo-located.  Sahana, in partnership with OpenStreetMap, used geo-rectification to confirm crowdsourced locations.

Check out the audio for the complete 15 minute interview!  (sorry for the initial background noise, but audio is still clear)

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