Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning, scalability and flexibility in emergency and disaster response systems

Posted in book recommendations, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on February 9, 2010

Following is an extensive excerpt from a letter I sent out to the UN-GAID Champions Network and select others, as part of an ongoing discussion of emergency relief and disaster recovery planning.

I have seen emails discussing specific ICT components and other hardware and software elements that could be added into a more comprehensive response — in an early post-event emergency response or a longer term recovery and rebuilding response or both. I have also seen some very interesting and provocative response scenario documents that have been developed with specific types of disasters in mind as planning tools.

I first got seriously involved in this area in the mid 1990’s and from the perspective of healthcare systems. I was, for example an official observer in the New York City ICE (the Interagency Chemical Exercise testing capacity of emergency responder systems to respond to a simulated nerve gas attack as part of the then US Domestic Preparedness Program). I was already involved with planning committees and initiatives that come together to develop loose leaf binders of scenario testing with conclusions, and generally with planning proposals in case the real thing ever happened. Unfortunately, most of these documents simply ended up on shelves collecting dust so they would not have been helpful if those real events had happened. They did not in any way enter into ongoing thinking, planning or practice after the exercises were over.

• We need to know what system components are available, and where and in what numbers and in what time frames.
• This inventory level information has to be both updatable and updated, and it should be maintained in more than one location so as to avoid single point of failure problems in the event a repository site itself be affected by a disaster. (Remember the NYC emergency preparedness command center located in one of the World Trade Center towers as proof that can happen.)
• At the same time we need updatable, flexible, scalable planning that would inform assembling systems on the fly, and checking and updating them as needed.
• Scalable is incredibly important here, and the devil, to cite an old expression, really is in the details. So for example, it is really helpful to have and to learn from planning related to local events that do not necessarily affect the surrounding support infrastructure — consider the fire/explosion in a key tunnel scenario and planning as an example. But we also need to be able to incorporate lessons learned at that scale to one where damage is just as profound and on all support systems on both ends of that tunnel and extending to and beyond the horizon from there.

Planning for flexibility and scalability are everything and this is definitely a case where ICT would play the pivotal role as you need to reestablish communications and information flow, and you need to be able to convert raw data to actionable knowledge to make any type of response work, for food or water, or medical relief efforts or any of the rest.

This becomes an issue of logistics and of supply chain, and if I were to recommend a background reading reference here that is probably not on the average ICT or emergency preparedness reference desks it would be:

• Fung, Victor K, Fung, William K. and Y. Wind. (2008) Competing in a Flat World: building enterprises for a borderless world. Wharton School Publishing.
I cite this book for the way it discusses dynamic sourcing and supply chains, noting that much of the underlying approach developed for a business context as in this book would apply to building a rapid emergency response system too.

We need to look to best practices and to ongoing experiences and lessons learned from ICT and from emergency responses and recovery effort. We also need to think outside of those particular boxes as there are other systems that have had to go through the learning curves of speed, flexibility and efficiency.

As a request to members of the Champions Network as well as to UN-GAID and associated, please share those white papers and Powerpoints, but be sure to include enough details so a reader could pick up all the key points without having been there for the original presentation. This is particularly important for Powerpoints where they are often developed as visual aids and not as complete stand-alone documents. That would make them a lot more helpful and especially where scalability and adjustability to meet specific local conditions are important, and for more general planning and discussion.

I would propose as a high priority agenda item that we begin to really focus on the big picture and in developing a framework that the individual technology and other components could be flexibly connected into. This would then be reality checked as issues like staging areas and sites for resources access and warehousing are considered. This would also be reality checked and adjusted as insights from Haiti and other events and places are brought to bear. This would be adjusted as well, as more participants and partners become involved, as national and regional and international organizations and from other supportive entities.

I will point out that other components of the United Nations would also have to be involved, and certainly as sources of insight and best practices. One that comes immediately to mind for me is the UN Peacekeeping Force. The longer the delay in responding to a disaster, the more societal dislocation, distress and anger has to be dealt with and worked around and through. Disruption can become a lot more organized too, and a lot more dangerous as a result. Real world experience identifying and dealing with issues here, and with knowing how to more effectively identify and work with local authority in the midst of chaos would be invaluable and for the people focusing on developing ICT solutions in the midst of that too.

I have been adding some of my thoughts on all of this into my blog and offer a link here to my new category page where I have all of this brought together in one place:

United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

Share your ideas and proposals, and information on resources that could be added to this mix. Collectively we have a lot to offer that would really offer benefit and to a great many people — but only if we can bring this collective knowledge and insight together to build from it.

2 Responses

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  1. George F. Tyson said, on February 27, 2010 at 11:31 pm

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