Posted September 7th 2011 at 9:10 am by
in Perspectives on Current Events

Information in a crisis, or a crisis of information?

Twice in the last month I’ve spent days glued to my computer, refreshing a multitude of tabs and Twitter feeds. Neither have been happy events: first the riots in England, and then Hurricane Irene. They reminded me how fragile our information services are. And how useless most media coverage is.

Crisis news is overwhelming. People tweeting their #Irene updates produced a huge volume of information. Epic. More than you could possibly read. Blink, and the Twitter notification would jump up by the hundreds, “660 new tweets”.

All the tweeting produced a lot of data, but not so much information. Hurricane tweets fell into two rough groups: messages repeating news from a mainstream source like cable or the weather service; and highly-specific, independently observed local reporting. Like reading a police blotter, you get easily alarmed as these blips kept on coming, and coming, and coming.

The traditional outlets were mostly a let down. Cable news… was cable news. The Guardian and New York Times offered live blogs, but they mostly re-hashed what was being said elsewhere. The lowpoint for me was the Guardian’s live blogger appealing for someone to explain tides to him. Wait, I’m here to learn from you, not the other way around. Close that tab.

I am lucky enough to work with a weather nerd (and I mean that most sincerely), and he spent the hurricane days trawling the weather data, and providing useful, solid insights. From Evan, I learned the good news that Irene was weakening.

Not everyone can have an Evan, so what could be different?

What you crave during a crisis is information, not entertainment. We need more information. In the days leading up to Irene, WNYC’s map of evacuation zones popped up in emails, tweets and other media outlets. It used freely-available city data, excellently presented. The crowd-sourced map of disturbances in London was my go-to during the rioting. Nothing as useful emerged for the storm. Where are the waters rising? Where is power out? What is the trend? What’s going on out there?

View Initial London riots / UK riots in a larger map

Good information: a crowd-sourced map of disturbances in London.

Some clues came from citizens reporting problems, but in a dispersed, disconnected fashion. We need to connect all these different channels of citizen reporting, seamlessly. After a pre-storm wobble where went offline, the city set up a crowd map for reporting, as did an elected official. The 311 catch-all help service was open for business, and SeeClickFix offered free tools to help cities collect damage reports. That’s a lot of individual websites to keep an eye on. It shouldn’t matter which site you visit or where you make a report, these reporting services can be better integrated to collect all known issues (something that Open311 will eventually enable).

We need to be better at making sense of the bigger picture. Twitter and Facebook updates have two roles: news that only matters to a few people (“the kittens are ok!”) and data points that matter to us all. They are a vast mesh of individual reports that can be mined for information. It’s a real-time Mass Observation Project. On election nights, broadcasters make sense of millions of votes cast across thousands of districts. A natural disaster should be treated the same way. Making sense during chaos is hard. The big media players — newspapers and broadcasters — should do it (hint: more useful than reporting live from a big puddle in Battery Park City). But so could groups of data nerds.

In all this, what about the poor? What about people with no broadband to fuel a browser full of tabs? Or people with no weather nerd co-worker giving updates via irc? I’m lucky to have the resources and time to spend a rain-lashed weekend trawling around online. Broadband, a weather-proof house, a reasonable salary, and no diapers to change. These privileges give me time to hunt for news and to piece together my own conclusions. In a world of filter bubbles, am I also getting some kind of crisis news advantage? Or just wasting my weekend? Ultimately, Tropical Storm Irene turned out to be a non-crisis in Crown Heights, unlike North Carolina or Vermont.  But in the next crisis to come, I’ll be looking for a powerful team effort from dataheads, broadcasters and citizens, making sense of the data explosion for everyone’s benefit.

Post by Frank Hebbert, Director of Civic Works at OpenPlans

One response to “Information in a crisis, or a crisis of information?”

  1. Information in a crisis or a crisis of information? | Open Source Planning says:

    […] Information in a crisis or a crisis of information? […]

  2. Dave Cooper says:

    Thank you for bringing to our attention Open311.

    I am keenly interested in the Open311 approach for another reason than sharing news, problems and events. I have advocated for several years to replace the current “211” referral system that Virginia and other states use to direct the “needy” toward resources. I advocate replacing the 211 system with a de-centralized, user-maintained service that allows “managed” posting of resources and needs so that at the grass-roots level connections and sharing may be accomplished.

    The current state-funded 211 system simply does not work, primarily due to its bureaucratic structure. Information is processed (validated) at a central location (requires paid staff). Then, the information must be entered/keyed into a database (more paid staff). Next, an operator(call center) with more paid staff is required to receive calls for assistance and make referrals to the already outdated resources that exist in the database.

    From my direct personal experience and from speaking with others who have used the current 211 system, it simply does not work much of the time. Here is one complaint that I recall.

    “I contacted the organizations that the 211 operator said could help me; however, I kept being re-referred by each agency I contacted. After reaching out to numerous places, I ended up being referred back to the agency that I started with. I still received no help. The 211 system does not work!”

    A friend and colleague, Cheryl Honey, the director and Master Weaver with Community Weaving (, is currently collecting and assessing the various on-line asset mapping and sharing databases. Her organization does precisely that which I have been advocating for several years: weave, establish, maintain, and manage a user defined, on-line resource to facilitate good neighboring (relationship building and interdependent sharing of local resources). Cheryl’s approach directly addresses the question asked in Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze book, Walk Out, Walk On: “No one is coming to help. Now what!” As you will note, I copied Cheryl on this email.

    I hope you will connect with Cheryl and consider a blog entry by her as a follow up to your piece that mentions Open311.

    All the best,


    Rev. N. David Cooper, MDiv, MSW, CPM

    Shalom Makers




    @shalommakers and @communit_shalom on Twitter