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EM Theory, Information, and Disasters

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EM Theory, Information, and Disasters

The purpose of EM is to minimize vulnerabilities to hazards that cause disasters. Vulnerabilities, according to McEntire, are “high levels of risk and susceptibility coupled with a low degree of resistance and resilience” that exacerbate potential hazards—“triggering agents” that cause disasters (2004b). Although it may be impossible to prevent or diminish hazards, it is possible to reduce the vulnerability to hazards that lead to technological, natural, or civil disasters (Table 3). For example, government officials may be able to reduce the vulnerability to terrorism through heightened “protection of borders and infrastructures or improvement in the prevention of weapons of mass destruction” (McEntire, 2004b).

Information and Technological Disasters

Disasters caused by technology are “the most difficult to predict” and are “largely unforeseeable” (Chapman, 2005). Tragically, many technological disasters result from seldom-inspected or outdated technology. A faulty computer surge protector is blamed for a fire that swept through Minnesota’s Hastings County Library in 1993, destroying 80% of the library’s hard-copy and electronic documents. The flames demolished the building and left the remaining documents damaged by soot, smoke, and water (Bolger, 2003). Since then, Hastings County has implemented disaster recovery plans to prevent and/or prepare for disasters.

Information and Natural Disasters

Reducing vulnerability to natural disasters may be more challenging. During the 1997 renovation of the Colorado State University Library (CSUL), library administrators stored approximately 462,000 volumes in the basement. During this temporary storage period, a flash flood enveloped the 77,000 square foot basement with 10 feet of water. Approximately 450,000 items—one-fourth of the library’s holdings—were damaged or destroyed, including the library’s vast newspaper collection. Although the flood was the world’s fourth largest library disaster in the 20th century, there was at least one positive consequence. Camila Alire, CSUL librarian, and other CSUL staff wrote Library Disaster Planning and Recovery Handbook, considered by critics to be a valuable disaster practitioner’s guide (Dugan, 2001; Williams, 2000).

Information and Civil Disasters

Unfortunately, civil disasters are prevalent throughout human history. At least three versions of the destruction2 of the ancient Library of Alexandria may be found in Egyptian history, however all versions attribute the great Library’s demise to civil disaster (Chesser, 2005). Ptolomy II Soter, successor to Alexandria the Great, built the Library in 283 B.C. and vowed to use any means to amass all the books of the world (Heller-Roazen, 2002). The Library did acquire nearly one-half million books—an unequaled collection for its era—before its ruin in the 1st century (Erskine, 1995).

The threat of modern civil disasters has increased since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (9/11)—a fact that makes tangible and intangible (electronic or human) information and information issues considerably more vulnerable to disaster (Comfort, 2005; Dory, 2003-04; The 9/11 Commission, 2004). Lawmakers have since enacted grave changes to the tenets of the U.S. Constitution (USA PATRIOT Act3) regarding access to information (Jaeger, Bertot and McClure, 2003). Both lawmakers and private citizens have made public information less accessible—so terrorists cannot access it—and private information more accessible—in case the information belongs to terrorists. The threat to public information and information privacy is an ongoing hazard, one that librarianship has struggled to mitigate (Appendix B).

Information in the Equation for Disasters

Librarians and library educators hold the preservation of information sacred and consider libraries—the primary keepers of recorded information—to be the last visage of a free public education for all citizens (Totten, 2005). Clearly, all disciplines benefit from the preservation and access to information, a sound reason for investigating information disasters. The study of vulnerability provides an excellent basis for future research in information disasters (as well as information flow regarding disasters). Information disasters may be portrayed using McEntire’s equation for disasters: vulnerability + hazard (triggering agent) = disaster (2004a) (Appendix C).

IS Theory, Information, and Disasters

The flow of information within the management of disasters can be investigated using several methods found in the interdisciplinary domains of IS. Many theories have evolved including theories of individual and collective information behavior (information seeking and processing). Collective information behavior has been studied in the context of group research (information flow in both task and emergent groups). Task groups—individuals who accept a collective charge to form decisions and/or solve problems—dominate research of information flow in groups. Emergent groups—individuals that meet incidentally and collaborate—have appeared in recent IS research with an emphasis on conversational problem-solving (O'Connor, Copeland and Kearns, 2003). Emergent behavior—a more intense form of problem-solving—has been the subject of some EM studies within the context of disaster scenes (Drabek and McEntire, 2003).

Information Flow and Small Group Studies

Knowing and testing the varying properties of information flow in groups may be vital to the success of EM teams at the local, state, and national level, within all the disaster phases (preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation) identified by Drabek (1986). Emergent groups that exist at disaster scenes warrant study, as do EM decision-making groups that contribute to the future health and survival of our governments, communities, and citizens. Within the last decade, the Communications discipline has introduced several ethnographic studies of group information flow, although the study of groups has traditionally been performed in laboratory settings. These contrived experiments cannot reveal the properties of real group information flow.

Although the small group4 remains the oldest and most prevalent of the concepts in all social organization (Fisher, A., 1974), the disciplines that study information flow in small groups are diverse and disconnected. Research of information flow in groups has matured despite independent studies by scholars in psychology, sociology, management, communication, education, social work, political science, public policy, urban planning, and IS. The absence of convergence within the fields, however, has not prevented small group research from accumulating enough solid theory in the past 50 years to establish its own discipline of study (Poole, M., 2004)

The formal study of information flow in groups can be traced to 1898 when psychologist Norman Triplett tested the hypothesis that the presence of others in a group would facilitate the problem solving of an individual (Hare, A. Paul, 1962). By studying group behavior, educators and politicians believe people can collectively solve common problems in the communities (Gouran, D., 2003a).

Group Decision-Making

A major influence in 1910 on the study of group discussion and decision-making was the well-known book How We Think by the distinguished philosopher, John Dewey. Dewey’s model is still the most widely-used model for directing the information flow toward problem solving and decision-making in IS studies of groups (Table 4).

Table 4

Dewey’s Reflective Thinking Model

  1. Determine what information is needed for understanding the issue at hand.

  2. Access and gather the available information.

  3. Gather the opinions of reliable sources in related fields.

  4. Synthesize the information and opinions.

  5. Consider the synthesis from all perspectives and frames of reference.

  6. Finally, create some plausible temporary meaning that may be reconsidered and modified as more relevant information and opinions are learned.

(Dewey, 1910)

Group Properties

Small group research became recognized in the late 1940s and early 1950s by an increasing number of references in the social science literature (Ellis and Fisher, 1994; Fisher, A., 1974; Gouran, D., 1999; Hare, A. Paul, 1962; Harris and Sherblom, 2002; Hartley, 1997). Although there are many more, 13 major properties, identified through theoretical studies and worthy of further study, may be depicted as an acronym, G.R.O.U.P. D.Y.N.A.M.I.C.S. (Appendix D) Understanding these properties of real groups in action provides descriptive and prescriptive methods that may enhance decision-making capabilities in EM organizations.

The G.R.O.U.P. D.Y.N.A.M.I.C.S. properties emerged because of studying the information flow in groups as a process. The group as a process led to groups being studied from the systems approach (Bales, 1999; Gouran, D. S., 2003b; Harris and Sherblom, 2002).

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