Thursday, May 26, 2011

Self Organizing After the Tornado

Tornado in central Oklahoma, 1999. Credit: NOAA
Last night, I switched on the television to check the latest news about the ongoing string of tornadoes in the US. Anderson Cooper was on CNN, interviewing people who were having trouble locating their friends and family members. The network was resorting to publishing photos and phone numbers of the missing to try and reconnect people with their loved ones. Several videos were shown of injured and exhausted folks waiting in line for hours on end to talk to a representative of FEMA or another government agency, sometimes just for permission to go to their neighborhood and look for the missing.

We should not, in 2011, be responding to disasters this way, with all we know about how people self-organize following disasters. It is well-known from studies of the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings on September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and several other well-studied disasters that people develop ad-hoc communication networks to help each other cope with the aftermath of a disaster. Our disaster response strategy should reflect this knowledge, but it doesn't. We continue to react to disasters as if people were members of a military unit and can be ordered around, instead of working with their natural tendency to connect and care for one another.

Some of the complexity scientists studying disasters and response efforts using a complex systems approach include Carter Butts at the University of California-Irvine, Noshir Contractor at Northwestern University, Louise Comfort at the University of Pittsburgh, and others. I will be writing future posts with more details about the insights these complex systems scientists have found about how people respond to disasters.  

We can, and should, use technology to facilitate the natural self-organization potential that people possess. However, relying on television broadcasting and telephones, particularly when the cell phone network has been damaged, is not bringing the full potential of our technological abilities to bear on this problem. Here are just two examples of more up-to-date efforts to apply what we know from complex systems science to disaster response:
  • Google's people-finder project has been used to reconnect folks after several recent major disasters, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in New Zealand and the recent flooding in Australia.
  • The Emergency Mapping Service, an international organization combines GPS satellite data with on-ground information to produce maps that first-responders can use as they carry out their relief efforts. 
An excellent blog, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, focuses on the implications that complexity science has for foreign aid and humanitarian response in both disaster settings, as well as situations involving chronic conditions of poverty, drought, famine, etc.

In future posts, I will explore this topic in more detail. Stay tuned...


  1. Heard of Ushahidi?
    Similar kind of disaster mapping software.