First responders, borders, and data – can shared data help build a more coordinated response to crises and disasters?

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Katrina Petersen | Research Manager

Date: 13 April 2021

Disasters and crises often have an international, if not a global impact. Management of these crises involves the coordination of a number of organizations and authorities across countries.

For this coordination, interoperability is key. This is the ability for a range of actors to share and understand strategies, processes, technology, and data used by each other to best fit their work together. Interoperability, however, gets complicated when borders are involved, especially when thinking about what kind of interoperability might have the most benefit for the communities served.

In this blog, Katrina Petersen outlines some key socio-cultural challenges learned from the IN-PREP project, whose aim was to innovate tools and practices to facilitate novel data sharing capabilities and collaborations across borders between crisis planners and responders.

Data sharing for a duty of care

Studies have suggested that focusing on interoperability as a primarily technological issue will not solve the organisational and cultural challenges that affect organisations trying to collaborate, such as lack of resources, distinct working methods, and incommensurable terminologies.

These tensions can be amplified when applied to the world of disaster risk management as they focus and inform a disaster risk manager’s duty of care. When designing information sharing for disaster risk management, considering ethical and societal impact can greatly help reveal and navigate such tensions.

For instance, determining if data can and should be gathered and shared needs to balance both the technical possibilities of having the data in usable high-quality formats with considerations of how the data can help the disaster responders serve their communities. At times, data might be difficult to design for, taking away time for other data efforts, but can greatly help responders understand unique vulnerabilities. At other times, data can be more readily shared technically but perhaps, the categories are not readily translatable to practice across a border. These tensions can help risk managers better justify where to put resources – into the data sharing or feet on the ground.

Actively exploring how the collaborative information tools shift resources, and the impacts of those shifts on what happens in the field during a response, can help those designing and using them find the zones of maximum benefit.

My risk is not equal to your risk

Having a clear understanding of the risks being faced, and their impacts is key to determine what counts as a just approach to public needs, fairness in resource allocation, as well as the rights and responsibilities of responders. Yet, collaborations often bring into contact incongruous approaches to risk.

It is well acknowledged among disaster practitioners that what risk means is not the same on two sides of a border, and thus what data they use and how they use similar data to answer these questions differ. Responders regularly note that other agencies “think in different dimensions than we do”, both in terms of the scale and the timing of the problem. Misunderstandings happen regularly and, while most European countries primarily work with a command-and-control model that has three levels (strategic, operational, and tactical), the risk management decision responsibilities at each level are not consistent. For example, decisions taken by a tactical team in the Netherlands can be taken by an operational team in Italy. What keeps coming out when responders from different places engage with each other is the basic question “why are you doing it that way?”.

Making data interoperable thus has an added challenge: being made comparable and meaningful in ways that enables disaster responders to navigate these different dimensions and breakthrough misunderstanding, as opposed to creating, unintentionally, new ones.

The ethics of making data workable

Misaligned interests in definitions and data categories raise further tension, ones that have practical ramifications for the design and organisational use of such interoperability tools. For example, each practice of risk management has different data that is immediately relevant and of the highest priority, tied to the goal of the actor: data about the scene, context, broader picture; data about who is where and in what condition; data about who has the capacity to provide aid to victims.

This is beyond semantic challenges. Misalignments can lead to mission creep where one agency is forced to take on another’s practice or understanding of risk that has been designed into the system. Many disaster response agencies lack the skills and capacities to ensure data is accurate, complete, credible, and not misleading for those they are sharing it with. Harm or decreased effectiveness can result from such misunderstandings.

This does not imply that these goals or approaches to risk are by their nature incommensurable or conflicting; they are not. Indeed, there can be great benefits to learning from different perspectives, helping to see what might be missed or biased in historical practices. This kind of interoperability asks for innovative, contextual, and reflexive IT work.

For more information on this research area, contact our team.

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