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04/30/2011: "Information and the Blue Car Syndrome: A Report from the 2011 Partners In Emergency Preparedness Conference"

Have you ever heard of Blue Car Syndrome? It is a popular phrase for the psychological phenomenon where you never really see something (in this case, a blue car) until you consciously start looking for it, and then you see examples of it everywhere.

Earlier this week, I attended the 2011 Partners In Emergency Preparedness Conference #PIEPC11 in Tacoma, WA, and I saw information issues everywhere I looked. I attended the conference as a student because my master’s thesis involves helping a local Emergency Operations Center improve their information sharing processes. I met a lot of great people doing important and vital work who help people out for a living and got a glimpse into a profession that I hadn’t considered before but now find very interesting. The most striking thing for me, however, was seeing how vital information is to this profession, how many information problems they are currently experiencing, and how much information management could help them help others during a disaster.

One of the most popular topics at the conference was the increasing use of social media platforms and how it can be used in emergency management. I also discovered the existence of a whole group of people who are looking into the topic of Social Management In Emergency Management #SMEM. I attended two workshops on the subject including one led by Annie Searle and my MSIM classmate Emily Oxenford.

I also attended sessions about:
-the lessons learned by a Public Information Officer (who write press releases) who was deployed to the Deepwater Horizon incident;
-a prototype of an information system that would overlay information from the Washington DSHS on GIS maps to be able to locate vulnerable populations living in disaster areas in order to provide them assistance instead of having them be abandoned as many of them were during Hurricane Katrina;
-how the Tacoma police gained situational awareness by taking the audience step by step through the response to an incident at an elementary school;
-the legal issues in emergency management;
and how small jurisdictions can set up emergency response plans.

As a result of working on my thesis project and getting exposure to the wider world of emergency management at the conference, I am getting a view of the information needs of this particular profession. In any disaster response, the key thing is having information. In disaster situations, the communications infrastructure that we now take for granted to share it might be damaged yet the first responders- and the public- need reliable information. How do responders share information with each other? How do they verify information to find out what is actionable and what is not? How do they communicate information to the public? What kind of information does the public need and want?

There are many information management questions that the emergency profession is thinking about and developing innovative responses to. It seems like every field and every industry is grappling with these questions right now and they need information professionals to help solve them. The only difference is that helping emergency response professionals come up with solutions to their information management issues is a matter of life and death.

As I prepare to enter the workforce armed with these new skills, I am looking forward to helping people solve their information problems and hope that I can make a difference in the world as well. Hopefully, as you look around at work or what is going on in the world around us, you will start seeing the “blue cars” of information issues. We have to identify them before we can solve them!

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