Short talk at SICS Openhouse 2007

Yesterday, I participated at the annual SICS Openhouse and had the opportunity to give a short talk about information technology and society crisis response.
The key message to the audience was that information technology for crisis response to some extend is designed based on wrong assumptions. This is not new but since long claimed by disaster sociologists such as Quarantelli and many more. The first assumption is about the single strong decision-maker. In crisis response a few people have strong mandates and responsibilities. But these people act within a network of other competent people, which means that they do not need to be strong and they are not alone. IT should therefore not further channel power to a set of few people but open up the crisis response work to the entire response network. Such radical transparency would improve the capacity to make rapid and competent actions.
The second assumption is that decision-making power should be exercised in a hierarchical chain of command. The large the crisis, the higher up the chain should the decision-making power be transferred. Instead, the focus should be to provide a horizontal spread of power between the involved organizations. Modern information technology could easily provide such mechanisms.
Third, the mobile telecom-network will fail in the event of a disaster or crisis. Studies show that the disaster agent seldom destroys telecom-infrastructure. However, the network will have disturbances due to the massive use. Instead of building separate telecom networks for crisis response, features should be designed to provide prioritizing in the commercial telecom-networks.
Fourth, there is too much focus to build specialized applications and services that should be used only in crisis situations. This means that whenever the big crisis strikes, professional actors should shift their tools from what they normally use and are competent in using and instead start-up and use tools they seldom use. This results in poor use and poor performance. I concluded my short talk by asking why teenagers are better equipped with mobile technologies for managing their resources, providing situation awareness, and share information between them, compared to professional incident commanders. Teenagers use mobile ICQ-services, they blogg from their cell-phones, they upload rich media to places such as YouTube. Why have we seen so few examples of re-packaging of commercial multimedia and social-networking mobile services for crisis response actors? Well…I do not a have a good answer.

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