I recently spoke with Professor Leysia Palen at the University of Colorado, Boulder, about her Crisis Informatics research project and followed up by reading her co-authored paper entitled: “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation” published in 2007. The focus of Leysia’s publication overlaps with my previous blog entry on the intersection of citizen journalism (Global Voices) and conflict early warning/response.
Leysia provides a valuable and insightful sociological perspective that is often lacking in our own field. Indeed, the sociology of disaster includes a public with its own impetus for participation that conventional conflict early warning/response systems rarely consider. Following are some excerpts from her paper that I found pertinent and interesting:
- ICT in disaster contexts will give further rise to improvised activities and temporary organizations with which formal response organizations need to align.
- The role held by members of the public in disaster—a role that has always been characterized as one of high involvement by disaster sociologists throughout the nearly century-long history of disaster research—is becoming more visible, active, and in possession of greater reach than ever seen before.
- Our stance is that the old, linear model for information dissemination of authorities-to-public relations-to-media is outmoded, and will be replaced—at least in practice—by one that is much more complex. Peer communications technologies are a critical piece of these emergent information pathways.
- Disaster social scientists have long documented the nature of post-disaster public participation as active and largely altruistic. “First responders” are not, in practice, the trained professionals who are deployed to a scene in spite of the common use of that term for them; they are instead people from the local and surrounding communities.
- People are natural information seekers, and will seek information from multiple sources, relying primarily on their own social networks—friends and family—to validate and interpret information coming from formal sources, and then to calculate their own response measures.
- The possibilities for public participation are expanding with increased access to the Internet and the wide diffusion of mobile technology—mobile phones, text and multimedia messaging, and global positioning devices. This technology in the hands of the people further pushes on boundaries between informal and formal rescue and response efforts, and has enabled new media forms that are broadly known as citizen journalism.
- For example, wikis enable broad participation in the creation and dissemination of information. Some visual wikis use mapping technology for linking textual or photographic information to representations of physical locations, thereby documenting, for example, the extent of damage to a specific neighborhood. Recent disasters show how people, whom we already know will seek information from multiple sources during uncertain conditions, have fueled the proliferation and utility of these sites. In this way, the public is able to take not only a more active part in seeking information, but also in providing information to each other, as well as to formal response efforts.
- Emerging ICT-supported communications in crisis will result in changing conditions that need to be addressed by the formal response. ICT-supported citizen communications can spawn, often opportunistically, information useful to the formal response effort. Citizen communications can also create new opportunities for the creation of new, temporary organizations that help with the informal response effort. The idea of emergent or ephemeral organizations that arise following disaster is not at all new; in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of disaster sociology, and supports the need for communities to be able to improvise response under uncertain and dynamic conditions. ICT-supported communications, however, add another powerful means by which this kind of organization can occur. No longer do people need the benefit of physical proximity to coordinate and serendipitously discover each other.
- Implications for Relief Efforts: As the reach of response extends to a broader audience with ICT, how will the formal response effort align with, support and leverage wider community response? Relief work—the provision of food, shelter and basic necessities—already largely arises out of volunteerism through either grassroots efforts or managed through official channels.