One of the main goals of disaster preparedness work is to simplify and support decision-making processes before, during and after an emergency situation. One way to do this is to make sure high quality, up-to-date information is available in an accessible format to a wide range of decision makers, including government agencies, nonprofits, community-based organizations and the general public.
While different types of disasters and disruptions will inevitably require the availability of different types of information, there are a number of assumptions we can make about what information and data will likely be useful, and we can work to organize that information and keep it updated so that, when disaster strikes, people who respond are prepared.
We can divide the information every community needs into four types, ranging from general, publicly available information to highly specific information that should only be accessible to approved individuals and organizations.
Tier 1: General Knowledge
Response groups should manage a simple, publicly available compilation of relevant preparedness materials. This information should include information about both how individuals and organization can protect themselves, and how people can mobilize to help others. Many of these materials will include general preparedness information, localized evacuation plans and procedures that come from national, state and local government agencies and aid organizations. These types of official materials usually instruct people to stay inside or flee in the event of a disaster, and rarely offer ways for people to help with response and relief. While this material can be useful, it fails to address people’s desires to mobilize and serve in the event of a disruption.
As we all know, many people want to do more than protect themselves during and after an emergency — they want to help, and will do so whether the government and large aid agencies want them to or not. Materials should be available that speak directly to these types of people, giving them safe, concrete actions that they can take to play a constructive role during disasters and disruption. These materials should include information about how to collaborate with existing relief efforts, build relief capacity within their own community, and network with other grassroots relief, recovery and resilience groups.
Challenge: Committing to a Central Resource
Due to the ease with which people can publish to the web, a myriad of individuals and organizations have general knowledge resources on their websites. While we encourage organizations to manage their own knowledge resources that are directed internally and at their constituency, we also believe that the most effective way for individual organizations to share general information is through a collaborative process with other organization and on a shared platform, such as a website or wiki which many people can edit. All contributing organizations and others should be invited to link to the website on their own websites and social media properties.
Establishing such a platform early on is important for a number of reasons.
It provides the public with a central resource where to get information.
More contributors will lead to a more comprehensive resource.
It creates a productive communications link between information managers at multiple organizations.
It requires the development of a process of consenting to the veracity of knowledge, which will enable organizations to agree upon information standards useful for managing information going forward.
Our Solution: A Knowledge Base
To facilitate the organization of generalized knowledge, we’ve created a knowledge base at knowledge.nycprepared.org and added over a hundred pages of information about how to organize effective relief efforts. The website is a type of wiki that is designed to make it as easy as possible for people with knowledge to contribute structure information to the site. Unlike other wiki-style websites, users can contribute information using easy-to-use online forms instead of wiki markup syntax which can confuse people and discourage them from contributing. We’ve found that people will not contribute their knowledge unless it’s extremely easy for them to do so.
Check out our knowledge base.
Tier 2: Geographic Data
Relief, recovery and resilience work requires a comprehensive understanding of regional geography. Examples of this type of information include analytical boundaries such as census tracts, zip codes, and jurisdictions, key points of interest such as hospitals, police stations and emergency shelters, and risk-related information such as elevations, population densities and demographics.
While much of this information is available from government-run websites and data portals, it can often be hard to find and even more difficult to access in standardized, machine-readable formats that can be fed into interactive maps and information management systems.
Challenge: Utilizing Data
As software and mapping tools become more accessible, it’s important for disaster relief and community resilience professionals to develop an understanding of how widely-accessible data tools can be used to make better decisions and more efficiently allocate resources. This requires a sustained training effort that brings people up to speed on how accessible technologies can be utilized, and then keeps them engaged with consistent programming that uses data analysis as a gateway to other forms of technology-based productivity. Of course, we recognize that some people aren’t interested in learning these skills, and that’s okay. Software developers and mapping enthusiasts are constantly developing applications, diagrams and graphics that are understandable to everyone.
Our Solution: A Data Repository
To facilitate the organization of geographic data, we’ve create an open data repository at data.nycprepared.org and filled it with relevant, mapable datasets. This data repository uses the same software as data.gov, so it can support thousands of massive datasets. People can create accounts and upload data themselves or request specific datasets from NYC:Prepared’s team of data management professionals.
Check out our data repository.
Tier 3: Human Services
Every community can benefit from the existence of an easy-to-navigate directory of local nonprofit and community-based organizations, and the services they offer to the public. During an emergency situation, the availability of this information can be vital to the health and safety of a community.
A subset of these organizations, as well as a few others, will also be offering services directly to those affected by the disaster such as disaster food stamps, rental assistance, remediate and repair services, grants for replacing damaged items, assistance with paperwork, etc. Organizing this information will not only make it easier for case managers to make effective referrals, but will also enable survivors to find information about available services for themselves, reducing strain on individual case managers and local information and referral (IR) systems.
Challenges: Interoperability of Information Resources
Since resource information such as the human services available to the public is so valuable, many organizations manage this type of information. Unfortunately, it’s rare that they do so in a coordinate manner or using data standards that enable them to share information between organizations or merge information together to create comprehensive, canonical resources.
This leads to significant challenges for survivors who can’t find the services to which they’re entitled and for case managers who have to constantly compile information from many different sources.
Our Solution: Data Standards
Overcoming the challenges associated with managing human services information requires a sustained effort to train people to use the appropriate data management tools for their own work, show them what’s possible when they use these tools in collaboration with other organizations, teach them basic open data management principles, and help them build relationships with data managers at other organizations.
Many people don’t realize that new tools such as Google Spreadsheets, wiki’s and FLO database technologies make it, from a software perspective, very easy for people to collaboratively build data resources that can be displayed in engaging and useful ways. These tools will help any data manager improve their performance, whether they’re working individually, in a small team within their organization or with people in other organizations. Once they can use the tools, getting them to work collaboratively with people outside their organization is much easier.
To get people excited about the prospect of working with more people, we show them demonstrations of what’s possible: such as a comprehensive map of all social services in a limited area that can be filtered using terms that get them precisely the information they want exportable in any format they prefer. Once people see what’s possible, they generally become much more interested in working together instead of in their organizational silos and want to learn more about how to create and utilize data standards.
NYCPrepared’s data standards and software solutions use schemas and taxonomies are “open” and “copyleft”, meaning that they are controlled by their users (us!) and we can use and change them without any restrictions. We also have formed a working group to help manage, maintain and extend existing standards to meet our community’s unique needs. Through this working group and other trainings, we are teaching people about the various software interoperability pitfalls out there, bringing resource managers into collaboration with each other and making collaborative resource-building tools accessible to the resource-management community so they can create collaboratively managed machine-readable datasets.
Tier 4: Network Data
Organizations actively engaged in relief and resilience work in the same geographic areas should be able to access information about one another that is not available to the public, including names and contact information for individual staff members; locations, capacities and point people at facilities; assets and inventory items that groups want to make available to each other; requests for resources such as supplies and volunteers; work orders, project management information and more.
Unlike tier 1, 2 and 3 data, this information is generated by and shared with approved users under a strict set of guidelines that meet and exceed best practices in information security and community management.
Challenge: User-Directed System Development
Wiki, data repository of website building tool can all be quite easy for people to configure themselves. Enterprise grade information management systems (IMS) aren’t as easy to configure, and thus require a more traditional software development process whereby a “product manager” works with the system’s users to develop specifications that can then be implemented by software developers during their development cycles. This process is time consuming and expensive, making these tools inaccessible to many communities. Fortunately, since NYCPrepared’s IMS uses free/libre/open-source software, the advances we make in our EDEN system can be immediately utilized by others.
The social organizing necessary to make a system like this useful is less easy to share. Due to Superstorm Sandy, “Long Term Recovery Organizations” emerged in each of NYC’s five boroughs. These LTROs act as “coordination networks”, each of which manages it’s own membership roster and enables members to hold each other accountable. This structure of accountability is essential for building systems with multiple layers of permissioning that limits the information different people can see. The more faith people have in the quality of the permissioning, the more information they will put into the system, and the more valuable it becomes for everyone involved.
Our Solution: Resource Management System
To facilitate this level of information exchange, we’ve configured a Sahana EDEN information management system (IMS) to meet the unique needs of the NYC relief community. This is the same software code base used by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to manage relief operations in Asia and also by a variety of city, state and national government agencies.
Check out our resource management system.