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Crisis Management and Informatics: Discussion from the Final Cybersecurity and Technology Futures Event

July 24, 2019


Jennifer Wood

This event was the final event in a series on cybersecurity and technology futures. The first focused on privacy, the second on systemic risk, the third on artificial intelligence, the fourth on international threats, and the fifth on state and homeland security. The full schedule can be found here.

Technology has increasingly been used for crisis management and disaster relief. In the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, technology has improved the speed and breadth of crisis management responses. Simultaneously, the rise of social media has provided fresh insight into the behavior of individuals both during and following disasters. Human behavior can now be monitored remotely and in real time, which can be both a blessing and a curse for emergency managers who rely on this data to formulate their responses.

On the afternoon of May 29th, a panel of speakers addressed issues and developments facing crisis management and informatics, calling attention to problems like misinformation, emergency response time, and government capacity to address large-scale disasters. The speakers were Megan Finn, Assistant Professor at the UW Information School; Curry Mayer, the Emergency Manager for the City of Bellevue; and Kate Starbird, an Assistant Professor in Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) at UW. The panel was moderated by Annie Searle, an Information School Lecturer at the UW.

Dr. Megan Finn spoke from her experience as both a computer scientist and informatics researcher to address the use of technology during and following disasters. She revealed that it was Hurricane Katrina that sparked the creation of the People Finding Interchange Format, a software which has enabled the creation of online survivor lists and enabled the quick collation of survivor lists for a wider audience. This technology has also set standards for human description that have since been utilized by crisis managers following disasters and events around the world. Later in the discussion, Dr. Finn addressed the issue of information reliability at the intersection of technology and disasters, and noted that crises pose a significant risk to the reliability of data on social media due to their inherently political nature. Disasters, she argues, have always been politicized as a way to shape narratives and serve elites. She referenced her research of narrative manipulation and strategic “seismic denial” following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to stress the prevalence of this connection between disasters and politics.

Ms. Curry Mayer is the current Emergency Manager with the City of Bellevue, but spoke to the issues at hand from her expertise gained from over 20 years in state, local, and federal emergency management and homeland security programs around the country. Ms. Mayer addressed issues facing government emergency management including budgetary constraints, reliability and availability of verified data, and slow adoption of new technologies. The City of Bellevue is currently looking at the possible responses to long-term power outages caused by a cyberattack or natural disaster and is actively looking at the role that technology and social media will play in human response and the ability of emergency management to address the needs of the general public. When asked about the adoption of technology by emergency management, Ms. Mayer noted that government bodies are typically slow to adopt and implement new technologies, but expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of shorter response time or better monitoring of disasters. She specifically referenced the opportunities present in drone mapping of disaster sites and AI sensor usage to gain real-time data on environmental changes. Public-private partnerships, she mentioned, will be a crucial means of modernizing emergency management. Echoing the concerns raised by Dr. Finn, Ms. Mayer mentioned the increased prevalence of misinformation surrounding disasters and how the sharing of sensationalized data can harm emergency management’s ability to adequately respond to those in need of help. Actual need may be exaggerated or underreported based on variance in access to social media or other communication technologies.

Dr. Kate Starbird drew from her research on human behavior and social media use surrounding disasters to add to the discussion of misinformation and disinformation in the modern era. Specifically, Dr. Starbird spoke about her research on the Boston Bombings in 2013 and the subsequent human response which was documented on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. As a drawn-out crisis, this event provided a perfect case to study how human behavior changes over time and how information shared on these platforms is utilized by crisis managers. The major trend she gleaned from her research was the increasing prevalence of misinformation, and associated decrease in fact-checking and correction, from 2013 onward. While much of the misinformation following crises and disasters may not be intentional and rather a byproduct of panic and exaggeration, there are reported incidents of intentional manipulation of data adding to confusion and harming the ability of crisis management to adequately respond. Social media is a useful tool to study how humans react to disasters, but is an unreliable source of accurate real-time data that could be used in crisis management.

The talk was the final talk in a series of talks on Cybersecurity and Technology Futures. The speaker series was sponsored by the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, Information School, and Women’s Center with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This event and publication were made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.