Keynote II: The Critical Role of Functioning Information Infrastructures in Disaster Response

Prof. Hans Jochen Scholl

Public administrations have been using advanced ICTs in all areas of government business to increase agility and flexibility, redesign and streamline process flows, improve the quality and scope of service, and strengthen overall safety and security. Like in other public-sector areas these so-called “Electronic Government” practices, or, taking the more recently used term “Smart Government” practices, have also greatly increased governments’ emergency and disaster response and recovery capabilities. In more general terms, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are playing increasingly important roles in all phases of disaster and catastrophe management.

In this vein, higher agility and resiliency in disaster response and recovery are needed more than ever, since around the world the frequency, scale, and impacts of natural and man-made disasters have markedly increased over the past decades. When a catastrophe strikes, local responders and communities are regularly vastly overwhelmed by the impact. In early incident response, accurate and reliable information is the scarcest resource, and the larger the disaster, the longer it can take until the extent of the impact is completely identified. Understanding the scale and scope of the impact, gaining situational awareness, and forming a common operating picture are the foremost tasks of any response, so that action can be taken in the most informed and targeted fashion.

While advanced ICTs have greatly increased response capabilities, they have, however, also introduced new vulnerabilities. In major catastrophes an over-reliance on the smooth functioning of advanced ICT capabilities might prove costly and dangerous, since critical information infrastructures might be compromised, or even completely damaged.

Disasters of the magnitude of the 2013 Tohoku catastrophe in East Japan, for example, have demonstrated that responders can be drastically diminished in their capacity to communicate with each other and the public, once critical infrastructures such as the electric power grid, computer networks, and wireless networks have been knocked over.

Building and maintaining resilient information infrastructures for all phases of disaster management and for managing all hazards appear as the most important undertakings for coping with the far greater frequencies of catastrophes observed in recent decades. Responders need to maintain proficiency in operating with a wide range of instruments from low-tech and manual cardboard-based systems with no need for electric power to highly sophisticated and networked information and communication systems that provide most accurate, timely, and actionable information to incident managers and other decision makers.

The talk looks at select recent cases and discusses the complexities of response efforts, the range and capabilities of technologies in support of response management and summarizes some lessons learned.

The talk finally raises and discusses the question to which extent disasters and catastrophes are truly natural, and which ones might be rather man-made.