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The Study of Disaster Information Flow

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The Study of Disaster Information Flow

Determining how information flows among organizations before, during, and after disasters can lead to new models of sound practice for Emergency Management (EM) practice to adopt. The continued omission of the study of information flow may allow the implementation of unsound practices and hastily enacted policies and decisions. IS methods from information flow research, including systems theory and small group interaction, may hold particular application for further study of information flow in EM.

The study of disaster information flow has been virtually ignored by IS researchers, despite its importance in EM and society. Research regarding information flow—the human and/or artificial information transactions that affect decisions—is of especial interest to EM where decisions affect the well-being of whole communities. EM decision-makers determine who is heard or not heard and what is done or not done regarding disaster planning and response—a vital public service that impacts communities socially, economically, and legally. People reach decisions through the processes of information flow during formal or informal meetings.1 Information flow in meetings of EM organizations may or may not be conducive to optimal disaster management; and researchers have not provided conclusive evidence either way. It is imperative that EM researchers know if methods employed in decision-making—the result of the information flow—are increasing or decreasing the vulnerability of a community to disasters.

EM concentrates on the preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation of disasters. McEntire (2004b) defines disasters as the “disruptive and/or deadly and destructive outcome or result of physical or human-induced triggering agents when they interact with and are exacerbated by vulnerabilities from diverse but overlapping environments.” Teams within EM organizations may struggle for long periods—or be forced to decide quickly how best to approach disasters. During these times of decision-making, the members of a team participate, either consciously or unconsciously, in creating and modifying information flow. Productive information flow is vital to ensure that EM teams reach sensible decisions. Sensible decisions aid in the prevention and mitigation of disasters.

History of IS

Information scientists historically seek solutions to problems regarding information in the broad disciplines of technology and sociology. The birth of this blend of technology and sociology in IS can be attributed to inspiration from “As We May Think,” an article written by Vannevar Bush at the close of the second World War. Bush, a respected MIT scientist and director of the United States (U.S.) Wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, believed that the scientists who had been busy devising methods to defeat U.S. enemies would now have time to devise methods to mitigate the chaos already evidenced by the explosion of information. He predicted scientific and social disaster if scientists did not address “the massive task of making more accessible a bewildering store of knowledge” (Bush, V., 1945a).

Bush had a suggestion—a technological knowledge management system in the form of a machine that would emulate human thought using “association of ideas.” The Memex would link thoughts “in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain”—a concept remarkably similar to contemporary hypertext (1945a)! The postwar scientists were unsurprisingly fascinated with Bush’s proposal and accepted the technological challenge.

Fortunately, Congress funded the scientists, with incentive from President Theodore Roosevelt who enlisted Bush to write a report to justify the financial support. Bush’s report to Roosevelt, “Science the Endless Frontier” (1945b), provided the basis for the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) by means of the NSF Act of 1950. One of the Act’s mandates was “to further the full dissemination of information of scientific value consistent with the national interest” (P.L. 81-507), a plan that eventually led to the study of information flow that generates important decisions.

IS: Technology and Sociology

NSF scientists quickly developed two major IS directions—technologically-based information retrieval and sociologically-based human information behavior—and by the 1960s, a few researchers were defining the term IS. When the American Documentation Institute, founded in 1937, decided to change its name to the American Society for Information Science, definitions abounded. Borko (1968) wrote one of the most enduring definitions, one that roots IS firmly in technology by stating that it is “an interdisciplinary science that investigates the properties and behavior of information, the forces that govern the flow and use of information, and the techniques, both manual and mechanical, of processing information for optimal storage, retrieval and dissemination” (Borko, 1968).

Researchers gradually revised the more technologically-based definitions to reflect IS roots in sociology. The IS scope would be defined by Wersig and Nevelling who wrote that “transmitting knowledge to those who need it” is a “social responsibility” (1975). Belkin and Robertson would continue the technology-sociology theme by stating that the purpose of IS is to “facilitate communication of information between humans” (Belkin and Robertson, 1976). Eleven years later, Vickery and Vickery (1987) emphasized the role of sociology in IS by identifying IS as “the study of the communication of information in society.” Buckland and Liu would once again combine technology and sociology when they asserted that IS “is centered on the representation, storage, transmission, selection (filtering, retrieval), and the use of documents and messages, where documents and messages are created for use by humans” (1998). Bates clarified, however, by writing that IS is primarily, but not solely focused, “on recorded information and people’s relationship to it” (Bates, 1999). With all the progress in determining the definition of IS, however, the definition of information—the focus of ISremained somewhat elusive.

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