#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.  LLIS.gov 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?

A DHS That is Truly Open and Collaborative...Are You Sure?

open government data - simple venn diagram Who would ever think that "homeland security" information and collaboration should and could be public?  Well, President Obama did when he signed his Open Government Directive on December 8, 2009.  The Directive, authored by The Office of Management and Budget at the White House, outlined three key principles to Open Government:  transparency, participation and collaboration.

Currently, Russia is exploring this issue as well to become part of the Open Government Partnership.  OGP is a partnership among over 50 counties (and counting) that support AND have a plan to implement their version of Open Government according to the Open Government Declaration.  There are strict eligibility requirements and Russia has unveiled a bold and aggressive approach (OGP Plan and Action Plan).  However, there are some takeaways from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Open Government Plan that will aid Russia in its efforts to open government.

In June 2011, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released its Open Government Plan 2.0 (Version 1 was released in April 2010), signaling its intent to meet the demands of the OMB directive.  Given the organization's broad and expanding mission, though, DHS has a number of lessons learned from developing its Open Government framework:

  1. The Value of Culture
  2. Collaboration and The Great Enabler of Technology
  3. The Complexity of the Future

The Value of Culture

One of the most notable absences from the framework is a cultural commitment to how Open Government should exist at DHS.  Culture is a key component of any change management initiative.  DHS notes in its Plan, "[t]he Department established a governance structure consisting of senior executives and managers to form various working groups within the Department to institutionalize Open Government at DHS."

This vague description of action, though, ponders the question of how to invoke a culture of Open Government at DHS?  In fact, with only senior executives and managers part of the working groups, how is DHS supposed to develop initiatives that reflect the experience, expertise and needs of the its employees and stakeholders?  Where is representation from private industry including critical infrastructure and non-profits such as the American Red Cross?

The lesson here is to include all stakeholders in the discussion of change.  They can offer different perspectives and act as evangelists when the time comes to implement.  The initiatives can also amass a following that allow for natural cultural change.  The more momentum an initiative has among the key people involved, the more chance of success it breads.

Collaboration and The Great Enabler of Technology

Technology is not the answer to all concerns.  However, technology is a great enabler that allows action not previously considered.  While "working groups" are often the agent of change at Federal departments and agencies, the form and function are beginning to change as collaborative technologies like social networks, feedback systems, and project management tools enable a collective voice to be heard and then to be acted upon.

Technology is a given

In DHS's Open Government Plan 2.0, IdeaScale ( a stakeholder engagement tool employed by GSA) was mentioned to help with dialogue around cybersecurity and national preparedness.  However, collaboration is more than the sum of the disparate and uncoordinated activities.  Collaboration is the strategic approach to stakeholder engagement.  And today, technology enables better and more robust models of collaboration that can reach far and wide.

These tools allow for better innovation and more effective change by capturing the thoughts and ideas of the many in a comprehensible and organized manner.  They also value the expertise (or non-expertise depending how you look at it) of an energized group of people ready to help government prosper, thereby breading change from the bottom up vs. top down.  And top-down approaches are often considered costly and ineffective, especially when no attention is paid to culture.

The lesson here is to develop better processes of citizen and stakeholder engagement to influence change and innovation.  Technology now allows new forms of collaboration that can rally significant numbers in support of various initiatives.  No longer does the burden of response, especially at DHS, rely solely on the capabilities of government actors.  Embrace the power of the people and think carefully before stymieing their efforts through bureaucratic "leadership" where progress is controlled by policy decisions.

The Complexity of the Future

In addition to being complex, the future is also a bit unknown!  However, the actions we take now help dictate the future.  And the largest benefit will be in developing a foundation of change, innovation and openness.  The more we can build "adaptive capacity" into DHS's DNA, the better we will be able to handle the future full of risks and opportunities that lead to a better and more open government at DHS.

In its Open Government Plan 2.0, DHS speaks a lot of the National Information Exchange Model, "a federally-supported, government-wide initiative to that helps communities of people with common mission interests connect and exchange information in order to successfully and efficiently accomplish their missions."  Overall, I support this endeavor with the caveat that this becomes the new Data.gov and contains models for non-governmental access.  Data.gov was a great version 1 attempt to begin releasing data.  However, the dynamic nature of homeland security requires real-time, relevant and multi-directional information to perform its missions, especially in collaboration with the private and non-profit sectors who are indispensable in this arena.

But the real lesson in building a solid foundation for the future is to understand what homeland security and the Country will look like in 5, 10, or 15 years.  Developing this strategic thought will help build a better foundation today.  In fact, one foundational initiative I already see is the need to develop an "open by default" data policy in which ALL (and I mean ALL) data can easily be accessed through well-defined standard interfaces that can handle the computing load.  The Wilson Center also offers some guidance on how to achieve the "open by default" strategy.  Specific data access rights can come later, but the important thing is to prepare the technology to open data for other agencies, the private sector, non-profits and citizens.  Ultimately, you don't know what you have to open until all your cards on the table!

Parting Thoughts

DHS and Russia have a lot of progress ahead of it, especially as they operate in very different cultural and political environments.  However, the support of Open Government is apparent at highest levels of both countries.  The important thing is to not destroy the concept of Open Government by developing plans in a bubble, but rather expanding the collaborative process to citizens, private industry, non-profits, etc.

For Russia, building a strong foundation in which to expand is essential.  Utilize the energy of the people to help transform government for the better.  Empower your officials at all levels of government to engage and collaborate with the public.  Sometimes you just do know everything until you ask everyone!