Great C-Span video from US committee on Social Media and Disaster Services. It’s a MUST SEE if you’re in the emergency management space, even if you have never heard of twitter or facebook.

There are experts talking here about where social media is fitting into emergency management, particularly in disaster scenarios.

One simple statement from Shona Brown, a senior vice-president at nailed it for me. She said that data needs to be “simple, open, and standard”.

Far too often when something happens, large organizations step in and want to solve all of the problems all at once. Inevitably, these major initiatives fall down, after a long push and loads of funding, due to their own complexity. I’ve looked at some key systems that are apparently being built to solve a lot of problems. We see this all the time and are fortunate enough to assist our customers. Continuum Loop was founded to help stop some of this madness.

In my role as an enterprise architect and development mentor, I am regularly asked to either assess systems or to integrate with them. There are too many that are monolithic – you can’t get in lightly – you have to go all the way or you get nothing. When I look at these systems I figure out rough costs and timelines in my head and then I can look around, in Canada at least, and count on my hands (or hand) how many agencies can afford the overall costs to integrate. Those costs come in cash, time, and the change in processes that are required to implement and support the new systems. Major municipalities and provincial governments can’t all do it – so what chance does the first responder have of getting access to these perfect systems. The important and difficult questions is why do these systems get created and why do they fail?

The systems are created to make order out of chaos. When you try to create such a system the general approach has to consider so many different factors, workflows, information type, specialized back-end systems. The result is a complex system.

The failure is in complexity. You can create a system that is perfect for a certain set of situations and it may meet the advanced needs of a particular large organization. However, one slight difference in how an organization operates and there is conflict.

Nature doesn’t do this. In nature, self-forming systems – flocks of birds, schools of fish, ant colonies – have a simple set of inputs and rules that drive the results. Birds don’t hold conferences and have dozens of systems running in parallel and series to be able to perform the magic of seeing all of them instantly changing direction together. They have just refined their responses to a limited number of simple responses. Ants have solved the traveling salesman problem that we humans apply supercomputers to solve – that is until someone figured out how ants do it. Now we have self-adjusting systems that don’t need a supercomputer.

Every day I fight against making things complex. I have the same tendencies. Luckily, in my MASAS efforts, I work with folks that are smart enough and tough enough to whack me in the head when I fall down that slippery slope of complexity.

As an aside, Heather Blanchard of Crisis Commons tossed out some nice quotes too, and she provided both in one answer after a hand-off from the Red Cross (~01:05:00 – real approximate time guess)

  • is isn’t “information overload, what we’re talking about is a lack of filters” – we’re doing this on the MASAS front. The concept is that we shouldn’t permanently hide raw data, but we must filter the information or you’re going to drown in the flood of information.
  • “User Defined Operating Picture” – not a Common Operating Picture. I’ve been saying this for years – unless you and I are doing exactly the same thing, we aren’t likely going to need exactly the same (common) picture.
Back to the opening quote – Simple, Open, and Standard. That’s what MASAS is all about – keep it simple. You may have amazing and powerful capabilities, but if my team and I can’t understand what you send our way, or if you make integrating with you so difficult and costly that you exclude everyone what have you accomplished?
Instead, send it “simple” – wrap up all that complex data in a simple package and send it to others. Better yet – make that packaging smart enough so we can all get something out of it – tell us what is happening, when it is happening, where it is happening, and who or what is involved. Write that down on the outside of the package. That tells me what is in the package – I’ll see if I can get something out of it but at least I have a clue if it is even relevant for me or not and if it is worthwhile.
I’ll repeat that the video is a MUST SEE. You can pick it up for US$4.99 as well – it’s two one-hour segments so warrants living in my iTunes library. I can’t stare at a webpage that long.
Shona nailed it – “Simple, Open, and Standard”. I’ve railed on long enough for now and I’ve only covered the Simple side of things but it’s a start.
“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” – Albert Einstein