Harnessing Decentralized Resources in Disasters


By now we know that the gunman responsible for yesterday's carnage at Virginia Tech was a South Korean student. A video-game crazed South Korean student, if you believe the other Dr. Phil. It's not too early to think about what we could do differently in the future, however.

Yesterday, I received an email from David Stephenson, who's blog is still broken with some of his ideas of the role Web 2.0 technologies could play. I'm sure he won't mind me giving them broader exposure here and commenting. David said:

There's NO PLACE in our society that should have been more on top of real-time, location-based info sharing about something of this sort than a college campus, because of their high concentration of tech-savvy users, let alone a technology one:
  • the media, especially CNN, have been full of photos shot by students with their cameraphones. Along the lines of what NYC is developing, the university should have had a process in place for students to submit their photos and videos, which would have given situational awareness.
  • the SquareLoop technology would have let the authorities broadcast alerts that would have automatically been received by every cell phone on campus (without the students having to register for the service)
  • the various social networking apps such as Boostloopt, Dodgeball.com, etc. that Carolyn Johnson wrote about recently would have allowed the students to share info instantly.
  • while I'm sure the university had a crisis plan, when things spiral out of control, as they did in this case, a wiki would have allowed real-time, collaborative planning of ad hoc responses.
  • the iFind project at MIT would have allowed instantly identifying students' locations...
  • the "presence dashboard" developed by Zingerang would have allowed instant networking among all involved to plan response
  • Portland's "Connect and Protect" would have allowed two-way 911 information sharing..
Yada Yada -- there's a lot more, but it adds up to the stark reality that the first incident should have resulted in an immediate lockdown, and the second round of shooting (unless there's something that hasn't been reported yet...) should never have happened.

David's suggestions are a great start at a list of technologies that campus planners could use to improve their situational awareness and their ability to communicate to students, faculty, and staff. I'm sure there are dozens of others we could add to the list with a little more brainstorming.

Of course, we were all shown video of the event over and over again that was recorded by student Jamal Albarghouti with a cell phone camera. Jeff Jarvis has a good discussion of how this changes newsrooms. Student blogs, aggregated at Planet Blacksburg provided real-time, eye-witness accounts of the event as it unfolded and now provide after-event peeps into the feelings of those who experienced it, directly and indirectly. Students are using Facebook to organize vigils.

Note that the things that are happening in Blacksburg are emergent and decentralized. They are not being organized by some central administration (although surely there's plenty of that as well). There will be plenty of hand wringing over what can be centrally organized when disaster happens. What David's suggesting is that planners ought to also consider how to harness the decentralized, emergent opportunities that the Web, mobile phones, cameras, and the like present.

Large campuses are like small cities in size and infrastructure, but very different in the sense of common purpose and shared goals. And even though most students come to school as adults in the eyes of the state, parents look to schools to provide safe environments where their children can continue to grow into maturity. Simply put campuses have a unique responsibility to plan effective responses to disaster--man-made or otherwise.

In this age of near constant interruption and instantaneous communication we ought to be able to do better reaching members of a community and empowering them to help mitigate disasters--even harnessing their emergent behavior in a positive way. I'm sure a lot of university administrators will be asking themselves what they can do differently over the coming weeks and months. I hope they don't ignore the decentralized resources available to them.