By Julia Moline
When you read an article or hear a story or see firsthand how hard it is to manage information after a disaster, it’s tempting to think that if only we had the right systems, all of our problems would go away. Technology can achieve amazing things. We can use aerial imagery to allocate response teams; we can trace tweets to find people trapped in a building; we can share information with people all over the world over computers and mobile devices. So why can’t we make this work?
The first hindrance is money, which can be a large barrier for non-profits. There are also number of issues that technology itself cannot address. These challenges are especially pronounced in areas that bring a lot of different kinds of responding groups together, including anywhere voluntary aid meets government response.
1. Different groups need systems for different reasons. In-kind donations management is a good example of this—it makes sense to have a single system that allows donors, beneficiaries, and decision-makers to see what’s needed and what’s available. Systems like the National Donations Management Network are built to help meet various needs through selective user access, multiple data filters, and custom reports. But as the system continually expands to meet more needs, it becomes less intuitive for the average user.
2. Database skills are not a given. The people who respond to disasters range from extremely tech-savvy grassroots organizations like Occupy Sandy to retired first responders with decades of field experience but little knowledge of technical systems. Most of the government and aid workers who get involved fall somewhere in the middle, so they need training (or instructions) on how to use a new technology or database. Often the system only goes part of the way toward accomplishing their tasks. Without the skills or the confidence to make the system work for them, aid workers often resort to simpler systems or even manual methods.
3. Frustrations with systems lead people to develop workarounds. In a high-pressure response environment, you only have time to do the minimum to get your job done. So spending time entering data or trying to run a report seems like a waste. Instead, you start printing out the individual records you need and handwriting your notes. Or, you don’t completely give up on the database, but you start to enter your information in the comments field instead of trying to track down all of the places you’re supposed enter data. Or, you just pick up the phone and have a conversation with someone. So you get your task done right now, but when your shift is up, the next person doesn’t know where you logged everything. And when his shift is up, you don’t know where his stuff is. You want to fall back on the system, but by this point, its information is outdated, and you have to figure out who has the information you need.
4. Sometimes, people just don’t want to share. Organizations can be territorial or suspicious of each other’s ulterior motives. It can be unclear who is responsible for keeping certain information up to date. And sometimes, people just don’t get along (especially when the environment is tense and the stakes high). So even when a system has the capacity to collect and synthesize data from a lot of different sources, some people might not want to use it, because they don’t want to grant others access. If enough users start to feel this way and stop using the database, it will no longer hold enough information to make it worth others’ time.
That is not to say that we should give up on developing technological systems for response. On the contrary: we have an obligation to continue to develop and improve our systems so that we’re best able to respond to disasters. But to do so without recognizing these challenges would be a waste of technology and a failure of development. We must develop systems with an emphasis on user-friendliness and intuitiveness, implement data management goals into planning programs, and make a concerted effort to train responders on basic data management principles.
Technology alone isn’t going to “fix” emergency management. But if we’re deliberate about making technology a part of the way we prepare for disasters, we can go a long way toward a more efficient, effective response.