Technology and Information Sharing in Disaster Relief
This paper seeks to examine the extent to which technological advances can enhance inter-organizational information sharing in disaster relief. Our case is the Virtual OSOCC (On-Site Operations Coordination Centre) which is a part of the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) under the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). The online platform, which has been developing for more than a decade, provides a unique insight into coordination behaviour among disaster management agencies and individual actors. We build our study on the analysis of a complete database of user interaction including more than 20,000 users and 11,000 comments spread across approximately 300 disaster events. Controlling for types and severities of the events, location-specific vulnerabilities, and the overall trends, we find that the introduction of new features have led to increases in user activity. We supplement the data-driven approach with evidence from semi-structured interviews with administrators and key users, as well as a survey among all users specifically designed to capture and assess the elements highlighted by both interviews and data analysis.
The exchange of relevant information is critical in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster. Within the first 72 hours, stakeholders work against the clock to find and rescue survivors, provide life-saving medical treatments, and set up the infrastructure for a long-term humanitarian intervention. However, the disorder of inter-organizational information sharing in this period often leads to overlapping initiatives and the extensive mismanagement of resources, which is in turn linked to the loss of lives and livelihoods on the ground. This is clear from reports following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake (;;).
Fortunately, the advances and access to new technologies have helped progress information sharing efforts in the field. Information communication technologies (ICTs) in particular are changing the way stakeholders communicate and share data within and across borders during crises. Web portals such as ReliefWeb and HumanitarianResponse.info continue to provide up-to-date status reports about ongoing emergencies. At the same time, open source web tools PLOS ONE | DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0161783 September 1, 2016 1 / 20 a11111 OPEN ACCESS Citation: Bjerge B, Clark N, Fisker P, Raju E (2016) Technology and Information Sharing in Disaster Relief. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0161783. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0161783 Editor: Kim-Kwang Raymond Choo, University of Texas at San Antonio, UNITED STATES Received: June 4, 2016 Accepted: August 11, 2016 Published: September 1, 2016 Copyright: © 2016 Bjerge et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Data Availability Statement: Access to the data used in this paper was provided to us by Thomas Peter from the Emergency Services Branch at OCHA-Geneva, the unit is responsible for managing the data and storage of system information about users. We have not been given the right to share the data with third parties, but anybody with access to the Virtual OSOCC can access the information about user activities and comments about recent disasters. We will of course be happy to share the code we used for analyzing the data. Funding: The authors received no specific funding for this work. and data deposits are emerging alongside social and technical networks to facilitate more timely and efficient methods for collecting and processing data. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, members of the affected community and global volunteers used mobile applications and social media networks, such as OpenStreetMaps and Twitter, to coordinate data and information with disaster responders . These collaborations were largely effective, and also worked to bring wider attention to the practices of crowdsourcing, crisis mapping and big data analytics to the traditional relief and response communities .
As these technologies continue to advance, we should expect to see an increase in the efficiency of information exchange as well as the amount of information shared among relevant stakeholders in disaster relief networks. This paper aims to assess these effects through an extensive case study of the UN OCHA hosted Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (Virtual OSOCC). With more than 20,000 registered users within the disaster response community, over the last 15 years, the system has evolved technically and operationally to provide stakeholders with various levels of information in the immediate relief phase following a disaster event. From situational overviews and maps, to the requests and status for relief teams and items, it has become a central information portal for global relief actors. This paper examines the impact of specific changes to the technological architecture and functionality of the Virtual OSOCC on user activity and the amount of information shared over time. We first employ meticulous quantitative methods on a unique data set of complete user interaction and show that the introduction of new features that enhance ease-of-use and usefulness greatly increases the amount of information shared in the system. For instance, putting in place features that help with the organization of information about relief teams and maps have led the number of pieces of information of those types to be tripled and quadrupled respectively. We then support these findings by applying a modified Technology Acceptance Model to data collected through semi-structured interviews and a survey distributed to all active users, which provide useful insights into the perceptions and opinions of users as to the effectiveness of changes made to the system.