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Information Disasters and Disaster Information:
Where Information Science Meets Emergency Management

Tisha Slagle Pipes

University of North Texas

School of Library and Information Sciences

P.O. Box 311068
Denton, Texas 76203-1068



Information moves society—and with the flow of electronic information, the interfaces for information sharing are continuously becoming more diverse. Information Science offers systems and technologies to connect people worldwide while Emergency Management proffers methods to secure information that has become increasingly more vulnerable to destruction. This exacerbated vulnerability of information to disasters, combined with society’s dependence on information, warrants the integration of the disciplines of Information Science and Emergency Management. Together these disciplines can improve existing practices to prevent and mitigate information disasters. They can also ensure the usefulness of the information that flows among victims, responders, and members of emergency management organizations before, during, and after disasters.


Information flows across space and time in unpredictable ways,
creating new structures and forms as the situation requires (McDaniel, 1997).

Unprocessed information is intangible and non-consumable, yet a plentiful resource that can be refined and used as a public or private good. Information is inherently more abundant than most resources because it is found in every person, place, and thing—it is the entirety of known data, facts and ideas. Information, in my opinion, is any meme, message, or meaning that influences, directly or indirectly, how persons understand their situations. It is the principle element of omniscience, and therefore the resource from which all knowledge is extracted. Knowledge includes units of systematic subjects, noted for their oneness, objectivity, respected social implications, usefulness, and resistance to obsolescence. Knowledge is mined and refined into the integrated disciplines the world calls wisdom—valued public goods like anthropology, information technology (IT), medical research, and universal religion (Cleveland, 1982).

As unprocessed public goods, information flows between and among people and groups in the form of verbal, non-verbal, or written interactions—whether memes, messages, or meanings—that serve as precursors to problem-solving and decision-making. Interactions instigated directly or indirectly by a disaster could be deemed disaster information.

Table 1
Categories of Hazards to Information




chemical, electrical,

earthquake, flood, hurricane

cold war, cyberterrorism, information warfare, terrorism, war

As processed public goods, information—whether a meme, message, or meaning—influences the lives of those who experience it. When life-sustaining or life-fulfilling information is absent, inaccessible, or useless because it is inaccurate or interrupted as the result of a hazard—natural, civil, or technological (Table 1), the persons affected may be said to be experiencing an information disaster. An information disaster hinders the access to or effective use of disaster information.

Information is a vital public good whether processed or unprocessed. How people encounter information, a phenomenon called information-seeking behavior or information behavior by information scientists, is the subject of extensive research (Case, 2002). The study of disaster information behavior—the actions or attitudes that affect encountering, needing, finding, choosing, or using disaster information—appears to be scant or absent in the literature.

This deficiency in the study of disaster information behavior may exist because studying information behavior involves field study—an option not always available to researchers in times of disaster. In addition, many researchers cannot afford the time and expense demanded by qualitative research, the preferred approach to effective information behavior studies. A further challenge for researchers is the inherent elusiveness of information itself. The form it assumes or the direction it will flow is not always apparent (Burlando, 1994). What is apparent, however, is that information, as the essence of all knowledge, and subsequently the essence all wisdom—is the basis for all disciplines of study, including information science and emergency management. Its pervasiveness alone demands interdisciplinary observation.

Information Disasters and Disaster Information

The Study of Information Disasters

Table 2

Common representations of information

























Unprocessed information is impervious. It does not deplete with use or corrode with time. However, people can forget it or disregard it, and representations (Table 2) of it can be easily lost or destroyed. These intangible or tangible surrogates that hold and/or display information are quite vulnerable to disaster. Hazards—in the form of terrorism, vandalism, heating/air conditioning failure, user error, computer viruses, hackers, power failures, cyberterrorism, information warfare, cultural power struggles, or even careless or impulsive law-making/enforcement—all threaten the security and effectiveness of information. Because all organizations house information, it is imperative that all organizations implement disaster recovery plans that include recovery of information vital to the existence of the organization.

Studies that focus on the disruption and destruction of information have become more prevalent, especially in the management fields where chronicled information is vital to management operations. Useful human and/or artificially transmitted messages were recorded as early as 3000 B.C.E. when the Sumerians created and stored common cuneiform symbols by inscribing them into soft clay with a stylus. The Sumerians, as have societies since, used common symbols with technology to transfer information (Drucker, 1995). Information Science (IS) studies have shown that for information to be managed effectively, people must employ a premise from sociology—for example, culturally accepted standards and symbols—with technology—for example, stylus and clay or keyboard and computer. Otherwise, information cannot be physically or electronically organized, stored, processed, recorded, disseminated, preserved, or retrieved. Because of the urgency to preserve and retrieve informational records, organizations are incorporating information preservation into their business continuity plans (Shaw, 2005). A sub-discipline of IS, librarianship, has long implemented these disaster recovery plans, (DiMattia, 2001; Muir and Shenton, 2002; Ruyle and Schobernd, 1997; Tennant, 2001) to protect and preserve the physical and electronic representations of information in library holdings.

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