Academic Research on Disaster Communications Technology [Survey]

Academic Research on Disaster Communications Technology [Survey]

Two great universities, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Engineering,  are coming together to do some much needed research on disaster communications technology.  I am very pleased to see this type of research taking place and hope you can participate by completing this survey.

The researchers are looking for all levels of practitioners involved in emergencies or disasters (e.g., DoD, DHS, Public Safety, private industry, etc.).  The survey has 25 questions and should take about 15 minutes.  

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Disaster Research & Innovation: Where is The Information Gap?

I have a great interest in the intersection between disaster policy, management and technology.  I am constantly thinking of these relationships and how best to research them.  But more than that, I am very interested in where practitioners have ongoing information gaps related to disaster research and innovation.   New advances are being made constantly and it is important to connect all communities to achieve effective outcomes. So my question to the community...

What disaster-related information or topics would you like to know more about in your jobs?  And how would you like to receive this information?

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 and contains models for non-governmental access. 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!

Market Driven Technology Innovation in Emergency Management

I recently attended a great demo by a new emergency management technology called Veoci.  This has great potential.  I even sent this along to my friend who works emergency management at a major airline. But as I look at the market for technical solutions and compare it against the problems of emergency management (and business continuity), which is increasingly cost-conscious, I realize there is a great divide between what is out there and what is needed such as feature mix, usability and scalability.  This post focuses on the innovative entrepreneur who wants to help the "disaster" solutions market go beyond its current technical limitations, provide a great service to its customers, and realize success.

Features and Specialization.  Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that product specialization is a key element of growth strategy and innovation.  After all, it is very hard to pinpoint precise problems and actually develop innovative solutions, even more so when the solution tries to do everything.  The more a company can continually test and improve, the more likely it is to solve customer problems beyond expectations.   But the problem is, where should companies specialize and how should they approach it?  This requires integrated innovation.

Usability, Scalability and The Fallacy of the "One" Solution.  In the past, many providers, especially at the enterprise level, have included feature rich solutions at the expense of usability and scalability.   In fact, emergency management is so dynamic and interdependent that one solution is simply not practical.  As a result, this model has proven tiresome, costly, and ineffective for our most important needs...collaboration, coordination, and management.  Additionally, and most importantly, it is not reflective of what is really needed, integrated innovation.

Integrated Innovation

So what exactly do I mean by Integrated Innovation?  I am defining this as the ability of companies to innovate through specialization, but better serve customers through integration.  Understanding this concept is most important to getting better market-driven solutions.  Here is what it entails:

  1. Focus on a niche - Select a very particular problem that you want to solve.  This is includes management and coordination, resource management, financial management, mass communications, and health and medical, etc.  Look at the many Emergency Support Functions to identify functional areas and explore them from tactical through strategic priorities and users.   Be the best at one really important thing.
  2. Build with integration in mind - If I only focus on one thing, what is the value-add?  Integration. Period.  Building your system with enough flexibility that customers can easily connect other systems that compliment your  product will enable customers to build a cost-effective and efficient ecosystem customized to their needs.  Should this integration be in the form of APIs, standards, a marketplace, user provisioning, or single sign-on?  The jury is still out, but the market will help drive this decision.  Just be prepared and begin forming technical alliances among other solutions so your customers don't feel like they are getting proprietary solutions that require customization after customization.  Start with similar size solutions to yours and look at how Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and other social media solutions have built with integration in mind.  If fact, there is a now a secondary market of social media management and analytic tools (another market for emergency management)?
  3. Growth - Growth ties all this together.  In fact, that is why companies start in the first place.  They want to grow to a point where they have significant market share to realize profits and investor value.  But how should this occur?  It is highly unlikely that with a market full of solution providers, many will sustain themselves in the long-term.   The market is only so big.  However, that should not prevent anyone from developing a solution they believe in.  Solution providers should understand ALL their exit strategies and still feel successful whether they are bought-out or merged with another solution.   Either way, you have contributed meaningful innovation to the market, something that is sorely needed.

This post is my message to all solution providers and has a few more implications.  Help change outdated the procurement cycle and help drive innovation through your approach to development and growth.  The end result will be meaningful solutions that make your customers happy, not just "satisfied" with a solution that has too many features, is hard to train on, and does not reflect the emerging collaborative and interdependent landscape.  And regardless of your approach, user-centered design and frequent user testing should be a part of your solution.  Consider design thinking and agile development in your approach.

3 Types of Social Engagement for Disasters

Social media is becoming ingrained within the daily operations of disaster management.  From mitigation through recovery, emergency management agencies are implementing social media strategies.  But with limited precedent and understanding for their effectiveness, change is hard. Operationally speaking, how do organizations begin tackling their social media strategy?  What tools are being used?  Who is assigned the responsibility?  And for what specific area?  What procedures/policies/processes are being used to support disaster social media?

We know the many social tools that are out there...Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.  The tools, though, don't not necessarily help us achieve our fundamental objective of preparing our communities through effective engagement.  This is where strategy comes in and the different types of social media strategies.


Whether you as the Disaster Manager, Public Information Officer, or Intern is at the helm for your organization's social media, it is important to develop your strategy around 3 types of engagement that span all phases of disaster management.

1)  Messaging. Probably the most common and time-honored type of communication strategy for disaster management organizations, social media has added tools that enable use to do this more effectively.  Press releases, preparedness tips, and incident information can easily be passed through Facebook's and Twitter's status updates.

Public Information Officers (in general) develop dissemination strategies through  use of Facebook  (using Facebook Pages) or Twitter by increasing the number of follwers.  There are also aggregation tools such as HootSuite and TweetDeck (check out 7 Social Media Aggregation Tools to Simplify Your Streams for more tools) that help you manage messaging dissemination.  Analytics can also be incorporated through the use of URL Shortners such as or  Better yet, show your influence to your bosses and naysayers with Klout, the standard for measuring social influence.

2)  Conversation. Probably more difficult, but certainly the next step in disaster social media strategy, conversing with our public is becoming expected and certainly a gray area between messaging and data collection.  If the public sends tweets asking questions, they want answers.  Conversation is much more expansive than public messaging because it includes going to where the conversation is taking place.  These days, more and more conversation is taking place on LinkedIn and niche sites in addition to Facebook and Twitter.  It is unrealistic to believe that conversation will only happen on your website.

Conversation, though, can easily eat up manpower and is a risky public media strategy as you develop proper responses to often heated questions and discussions (check out the NYC Social Media Customer Use Policy and the NYC Social Media Policy).  But it is one well worth the effort as your community begins to recognize that you are not just listening, but engaging and working on the things that they so desperately need.  They need to know not only what you have done, but what you are working on!  Begin looking where the conversations are taking place and start engaging now, before the disaster.  Create a list of all online places where YOUR communities are engaging and where your organization should have a presence.

3)  Data Collection and Management. I will be honest, we aren't here yet, but we are heading in this direction.  It is a simple fact, the public is everywhere else that we are not.  They are assets in helping us identify and manage unmet need, and in maintaining good situational awareness.  But they don't necessarily know what our data reporting needs are and they certainly don't know the best place to feed this information to.  But what if we identified existing (or perhaps created) tools that are easy for the public to use and will enable us to do our jobs better?  What if we created the processes behind the tools to help manage the flow of information so that public information becomes more meaningful?

Adam Crowe, CEM presented on this future in his conference presentation Going Beyond Facebook & Twitter.  He discussed the use of social geo-location tools to ultimately aid:

  • Search & Rescue
  • Debris Management
  • Damage Assessment
  • Spotter Deployment
  • Field Accountability

Tools like Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Google Latitude are just a smattering of examples.  Many new mobile location-based applications are being developed and it is up to us to develop the processes and procedures behind the next generation of applications to meet our information needs from the public.  Technology today makes this possible and is a lot simpler than you think with do it yourself tools like SwebApps and AppMakr.


Your followers are your community members as well as those in the surrounding areas.  Prominent organizations and other response partners in your community are also  followers that have the ability to amplify your messages farther than you can imagine.  Check to see if your local non-profits or response partners maintain an online social presence and incorporate them into your social media strategy.

What does your social media strategy look like?  How is it organized?  Who is responsible?