My colleague, NetAge Director Doug Carpenter, recently brought my attention to the need for better organizational mapping during major crises. This led us to take a look at Haiti, where the need for understanding who's doing what and how they connect to one another remains intense more than two years after the devastating earthquake. We believe there's broad applicability given the state of crisis/disaster preparedness and response. Here's our thinking.
It’s well known that crises give birth to self-organizing networks. In the panic that follows an earthquake, for example, people both on the scene – and those empathizing from a distance – step outside the constraints of their normal routines and act to set things right. Reports on how effective these networks can be are legion, whether we’re talking about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan.
In each situation, people quickly improvised to bring together vital information that could aid in the response. And they were effective: they put people back in touch with their families, rebuilt roads, moved food, and saved lives.
Yet the vast quantities of data that were available to assist in making these efforts more effective also served to hinder their success. We have tons of data but the systems in which that information is encased rarely talk to one another. Likewise, individuals who are experts in particular data sets are hampered in their ability to look across information domains.
One significant challenge then in crisis preparation, management, and response is how to bring meaningful and interrelated data together in ways that can be easily seen, used, and analyzed both in the immediate response and during the long-term recovery.
Organizational mapping can serve as “ground-level truth” -- a starting point for bringing together vital information. For example, an organizational map can be created to depict the U.N. presence in Haiti:
Any node in the network can be placed at the center and can be represented and described in multiple ways – who leads it, who works for it, what each person’s role is, what its purpose and goals are, who the organization serves, where the people and the organizations are located, and what they’ve accomplished.
We can also draw lines that reflect the organizations’ relationships to one another thus providing a map of the UN’s organizational geography in Haiti and a glimpse into the relative strength of this expansive network.
Next we can add other organizations, making a dent in capturing the thousands of NGOs operating in Haiti.
From here, we can layer other networks and alliances such as the web of those responsible for providing food, health care services, and infrastructure development. We can shine the light on a specific network or look at them all at once.
Visualization is the first step. Next comes the ability to navigate the organizational terrain since the data reflect a range of invaluable information. Want to find a plant-disease expert in Port-au-Prince? A simple search makes this possible. Likewise, should you want to find the leader of a faith-based initiative based in the U.S. who is in charge of literacy programs in the south of the country, this too is possible.
The third, and perhaps most important, capability that network mapping makes possible is analysis. Using simple network metrics, it is possible to determine which networks are the most connected and which are most isolated, which areas are receiving the most attention and which are underserved. Regions that are highly connected are likely to be more resilient than regions that are disconnected. Network mapping provides this type of insight and answers strategic questions currently understood and those yet to be considered.
The network mapping application, OrgScope, is based on technology developed at Xerox PARC in the 1990s and can be attached to physical mapping systems such as Google Maps. OrgScope, combined with a crisis mapping effort, creates the possibility of being able to locate trouble spots in real-time, identify and match local resources, and significantly strengthen the capacity and preparedness of aid agencies. Such an approach would provide multi-dimensional perspectives on any crisis, where multiple vectors are brought together in comprehensive and consistent views. It would also address one of the fundamental problems voiced by Anahi Ayala, an expert in the use of new technologies for crisis mapping, in regard to such efforts in the Haiti disaster response:
“One of the main problems that emerged was not only the need to communicate but the need for a coordinated and homogeneous message to be delivered to the affected communities. The problem was posed by the fact that as agencies and organizations were growing in number and size, all of them were trying in different ways to deliver messages to the beneficiaries of aid, with the result of many messages, sometimes contradicting each other, delivered to many people, sometimes not the right receiver for that message.”
Consistency in response stems from consistency in available information and its interpretation. New approaches such as organizational mapping make this possible and herald a new era in crisis management.