I am a huge fan of social media and an even bigger fan of emergency response.
And, as capabilities expand in the realm of social media, I’m beginning to struggle with the role of big data in emergency response.
Yes, every day, we have increasing access to types of data as emergency response agencies.
We have GIS data layers that cover many different types of layers from critical infrastructure to vulnerable populations. We have cameras that monitor public spaces. We have river sensors that report flooding. You name it, a data layer can be created for it.
The problem is our humanity. How much information is too much? What is the span of control on the human brain? What decisions will require human-level involvement versus decisions that can be automated?
I work in a 911 facility where our dispatchers already monitor at least 5 large screens of data (and that is simply to manage voice-based communications coming over telephones and radio traffic). In most public service agencies, we have a customer service model that answers each individual 911 call and seeks to provide direct response.
In the future of data management, a 1:1 response ratio will be impossible to maintain in our emergency service structures. No agency has the resources to manage this type of customer service model. And when there are conflicting demands on resources from differing types of data inputs, how will we prioritize the true threats occurring in any incident?
While I see a lot of emergency response programs interested in mobile apps that aim to engage the community in emergency response (like Red Cross and PulsePoint), the emergency response community must begin to have serious conversations about how to unify around several applications, because as the app market continues to proliferate (being over a million apps today), it won’t help any agency to have 1000 people using 100 different apps. There needs to be some unity of message and use among emergency response agencies so that we can collectively learn to act together during a response and not all be off doing different things. That risks replication of work across the board.
Here are a couple of thoughts that we need to consider as these conversations evolve in a variety of disciplines (most notably, 911 and Emergency Management):
- What data is really required to make emergency response decisions at local, state and national levels? Are the data requirements different and why?
- What are the time constraints on that data? How quickly must the data be obtained in order to effectively impact emergency response?
- What role should local, state, federal and community relief organizations have in working with the technical communities? How can we define a strategy so that we are not all trying to solve the same problems?
- Who should be engaged in the conversations? Right now, I see a lot of siloed conversation in the realms of Emergency Management and 911 (as it revolves around Next Generation and FirstNet initiatives), but these two professions will ultimately create information-flow channels that need to work in harmony with each other.
- How and who should be responsible for collecting the data required? Are government organizations responsible for bringing these capabilities in house or should they be partnering with a community-based organizations. And while currently, there are many groups evolving out of both technical communities (Crisis Mappers, Geeks Without Bounds, Standby Task Force) and emergency response community support organizations (Crisis Commons, Red Cross Digital Advocates, VOST, Humanity Road), partnership with and among these organizations is often loosely structured and results in EM programs that partner out of convenience or who they find first.
These questions can be overwhelming, but there are decisions that will be made shortly in the 911 community, relating to Next Gen 911, that will impact the Emergency Management communities. And, if the decisions are made without thinking about the whole emergency response cycle from “first report” to “community recovery,” we may find that the haystack of data makes for a particularly messy emergency response system.
There is meaning in the quote “united we stand, divided we fall” ….and, we need to ensure that there is unity of effort at all levels of government before data becomes our dividing force.