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Communications of the ACM

Emergency response information systems: emerging trends and technologies


The slow and inadequate response to the devastations caused by Hurricane Katrina in the southern U.S. and the Indian Ocean tsunami that flooded coastal areas across South and Southeast Asia have left deep marks in the emergency management community. Essential emergency management coordination processes broke down in the immediate aftermath of these disasters, and even the most advanced information technologies did not seem to notably contribute to the faster relief of the affected populations. Those affected in the U.S. massively turned to basic Web sites created by volunteers to locate friends or family, rather than using information resources provided by government or professional relief organizations. Software engineers in Sri Lanka voluntarily worked day and night to build a basic emergency response system, lacking any other alternative, and got the system up and running within weeks after the tsunami. Confronted with this new reality, researchers and practitioners in emergency management were much in need of rethinking the role of information technology in emergency response. The design, development, use, and evaluation of emergency response information systems clearly needed to take a far more prominent place on the agenda of researchers, emergency managers, and policy makers worldwide.

Both the practitioner and academic communities have advocated that new emergency response systems and processes are long overdue. In the practitioner community, emergency managers have learned and stated that accurate and timely information is as crucial as is rapid and coherent coordination among the responding organizations. Effective information systems that provide timely access to comprehensive, relevant, and reliable information are critical. The faster emergency responders are able to collect, analyze, disseminate and act on key information, the more effective and timely will be their response, the better needs will be met and the greater the benefit to the affected populations. In the academic community, research on emergency response information systems goes back several decades. The very first group communication- oriented crisis management system EMISARI [1] was used for the 1971 Wage Price Freeze crisis and assorted U.S. federal crisis events until the mid-1980s. The use of information and communication technology (ICT) in emergency management has since progressed in all phases of emergency preparedness, planning, training, response, recovery, and assessment [3].

Emergency managers have learned and stated that accurate and timely information is as crucial as is rapid and coherent coordination among the responding organizations. Effective information systems that provide timely access to comprehensive, relevant, and reliable information are critical.

In this special section, we offer a flavor of the current state of the art in emergency response information systems through a number of illustrative examples of new trends and technologies that have emerged in the post-Katrina and post-tsunami emergency response era. Authors from the academic and practitioner communities have teamed up and developed articles with a focus on both academic rigor and practitioner relevance.

In the first article, Carver and Turoff discuss the design challenges for human-computer interaction and human factors in emergency management systems so that more effective and efficient interaction is achieved. The authors call for a user-centered systemic approach with a major emphasis on user requirements, driving technological developments as a result of lessons learned. They conclude that the human role in emergency response information systems should not be neglected: the human is part of the system, the computer is part of the team, and both the computer and the human work with other people and other computer systems in other agencies, sharing information and working together to manage the crisis, mitigate its effects and to support the victims after the event.

French and Turoff follow up on that conclusion by discussing a number of critical issues in the field of Decision Support Systems (DSS). The authors point out that the deployment of collaborative DSS technologies within the context of emergency management is not common, and argue that DSS should draw upon and integrate communication and visualization aids to build a collaborative understanding of what is happening and to foster shared mental models among the management team.

Fiedrich and Burghardt argue that the application of agent technology can support more timely and enhanced data acquisition, information production, decision support, and action coordination. The authors identify and discuss two major research areas: agent-based simulation systems, which allow the creation of realistic post-disaster environments, and agent-based DSS to support disaster managers on various levels.

Harrald, Mendonca, and Jefferson argue that in order to contribute to the success of emergency response operations, ICT-based support must recognize three results from research on human response to emergencies: first, that a range of tasks, varying in their degree of improvisation, will be undertaken by response personnel; second, that the cognitive, behavioral, and communication activities that underlie these tasks will be undertaken by personnel in established organizations and in adhocracies; and third, that various ICTs will need to be mixed and matched to support personnel in accomplishing response tasks. The authors suggest that emergent interoperability is an approach to ICT design that recognizes the salience of unplanned-for contingencies during emergency response, and the concomitant need for real-time mixing and matching of these technologies.

It has been stressed repeatedly that communication in large-scale emergencies remains a major challenge. Manoj and Hubenko-Baker identify and discuss technological, sociological, and organizational challenges that are key to developing and maintaining healthy and effective disaster communication systems.

Palen, Hiltz, and Liu describe three illustrative citizen-led online forums that emerged following the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, during the rampant 2003 San Bernardino, CA wildfires, and in preparation for a possible avian flu pandemic. These online forums created a means for sharing and learning from personal stories, experience, and knowledge in preparation for future events. These forums are illustrating the reach of the Internet and the expanding opportunities for public involvement, regardless of a person's physical distance from the disaster area. The authors call for socio-technical solutions that address the challenges of interoperability, authenticity, usability, and organizational applicability of citizen-generated information.

Recognizing that sharing information about threats and hazards is one of humankind's most basic social activities, Botterell and Adams-Moring discuss public warning systems. Public warning systems face several challenges, and barriers of specialization (each authority or region having its own public warning system), technology (radio, TV, or SMS to name a few), and often significant language issues must be overcome to achieve a successful warning to the public. The Common Alerting Protocol standard may be an important step forward in this currently fragmented area.

Currion, de Silva, and Van de Walle touch upon a pressing need in global disaster management. Very few developing countries are able to commit sufficient resources to emergency management, regardless of an often long history of recurring natural disasters such as earthquakes, mud slides, flooding or, at the other extreme, extensive drought. The authors present Sahana, a free and open source disaster management system developed in Sri Lanka following the Tsunami disaster in 2004. The authors argue that given the key characteristics of an open-access approach, low-cost deployment, and easy adaptability, free and open source emergency management systems will play an increasingly important role in future humanitarian operations.

After reading the articles in this section, we hope you will agree with us that the technology presented here illustrates the adage originally stated by Turoff in 2002 in this magazine, "past and future objectives remain the same in crises: providing relevant communities collaborative knowledge systems to exchange information" [2].

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1. Hiltz, S.R. and Turoff, M. The Network Nations: Human Communication via Computer. MIT Press, 1978/1993.

2. Turoff, M. Past and future emergency response information systems. Commun. ACM 45, 2 (Apr. 2002), 29–32.

3. Van de Walle, B. and Turoff, M. Decision support for emergency situations. In F. Burstein and C. Holsapple, Eds., Handbook on Decision Support Systems, International Handbook on Information Systems Series, Springer-Verlag, 2007.

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Bartel Van de Walle ( is an assistant professor of Information Systems at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Murray Turoff ( is a distinguished professor in the Information Systems Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

©2007 ACM  0001-0782/07/0300  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2007 ACM, Inc.


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