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Adam Crowe - Disasters 2.0
A Futurist Guide

by Adam Crowe: Trends, forecasts, predictions and a vision for the future of emergency management

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February 14, 2014

Facebook has released a series of blog posts this week about how user statistics can predict stages of romantic behavior. For example, Facebook claimed that two people about to enter a romantic relationship interacted more and more on Facebook in the weeks leading up to making the relationship official with an average post of 1.67 posts per day. Moreover, this engagement started to decline immediately following the establishment of the relationship presumably because they are spending more time together offline.

While these statistics aren't all that relevant to emergency managers, the concept of utilizing social data for predicting behavior is extremely important. Many disaster response groups have been utilizing social media monitoring for the last several years, but much of that data is responsive in nature rather than predictive.

Emergency management professionals would greatly benefit from being able to predict preparedness and risk reduction strategies in their community. While this is certainly still a difficult task to measure in most areas, it is a technological capability worth noting and monitoring in the future. By partnering with students and researchers at universities and colleges, this type of data may be collected and aggregated by forward leaning organizations.


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February 12, 2014

I am fascinated by the so-called "Internet of Things".  While no clear cut definition exists, it loosely addresses the fact that an increasing number of objects are becoming embedded with sensors and communication systems.  This integration is sometimes called referred to making the devices "smart" since they are often able to provide feedback mechanisms to the process.

More objects are becoming embedded with sensors and gaining the ability to communicate. The resulting information networks promise to create new business models, improve business processes, and reduce costs and risks.  For example, a company called NEST who built smart thermostats and smoke detectors was recently purchased by Google for more than $3 billion.  Another study revealed that smart devices will be the single largest user of internet data by 2018 vastly exceeding tablets, wearable technology, smartphones and personal computers.

So how will this impact emergency management?  That's the tough question.  Certainly there are already some preparedness devices (see NEST above) and risk reduction strategies that monitor bridge strength, water levels, and other similar risk areas.  Much like other technologies, the emergency management and public safety community will be slow to adapt these technologies to every day uses -- particularly in light of reduced funding.  However, the rise of these devices in people's lives should compel us -- as professionals -- to seek to understand these devices and be creative in consider when, where, and how they may impact our response to disasters.


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February 07, 2014

As an important, but limited resource in most communities, many emergency managers are constantly conducting risk assessment (officially or unofficially) to address public concerns, political hot-buttons, identified local hazards, and threats that may arise in the near future.  Most of these issues are fairly well defined with understood characteristics, patterns, and impacts.  For example, an emergency manager in tornado-alley has most likely experienced tornado events numerous times in the past and can adequately consider, process, and define how that particular hazard may impact his/her community.

The real challenge are those risks that have not yet been experienced in a given community or cannot as easily be categorized.  For example, scientists and some political figures have identified the threat of global warming/climate change as a significant threat to communities throughout the world due to the cascading impacts on climate and the environment.  Unfortunately for most emergency managers -- we can't see, touch, taste, or feel Global Warming directly.  To use the example from earlier, it is very difficult to see the difference between a "regular" tornado and a "climate change" tornado.  Likewise, cyberterrorism is a real and growing threat to many government and business industries.  Much like climate change, emergency management (and public safety officials) can't easily see or quickly identify the "bad guy".  You can't put up a wanted poster or send in special equipment and resources to address the risk.

So what are emergency managers to do in the face of these types of risks?  Are they too "big" to plan and mitigate for?  Do they even belong in emergency management conversations?  This is an important question that has no clear resolution at this point, but hopefully will begin to be considered at all levels.


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November 08, 2013

At the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Annual Conference last week, I had several interesting conversations about what the future of emergency management looks like. With technology constantly changing, new risks being identified, increasing political tensions, and changing social and demographic standards, the future of emergency management is simultaneously bright and murky. Here are some thoughts:

SUPER DIGITAL AGE

Technology is quickly approaching the point of full integration into all aspects of life. There are an increasing number of technologies designed for communication, community, and collaboration. Moreover, there are a growing number of technologies that are aimed toward predicting behaviors. Technologies like augmented reality (ex: Google Glass) and the growing expectation of the public will continue to force professional emergency managers to radically shift when, where, and how technology is deployed before, during, and after disasters.

POLITICIZATION OF RECOVERY

The partisan issues of American politics does not stop during disaster response and recovery. Political sensitivity continues to be a major issue as was evident during the BP Oil Spill and Superstorm Sandy recovery. This is going to continue to be a challenge to emergency managers as we attempt to work within best practices, governmental interpretations, and shifting political influences. This may lead to opportunistic disaster recovery rather than incident-driven priorities.

DISTORTED PERCEPTIONS OF RISK

Citizens have long had difficult truly grasping the relative risk to themselves in a given community. Moreover, major events like Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Alabama tornado outbreak have lead to a distorted view of the so-called "Black Swan" events. Are these events occurring more often or is this a cascading issue of social engagement. These Black Swan events often shift public attention away from critical issues and disasters in more remote areas (or less media-interesting areas).

CHANGING ECONOMICS

While the national economy continues to be sluggish, there are other emerging economies that are going to impact emergency management. For example, digital currency programs (ex: bitcoin) and barter systems (via emergent disaster response) are influencing how support resources will be distributed and shared.

All I know for sure is that what is past is prologue. Let's eagerly look to the future at what can and will be.


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September 03, 2013

Emergency Management Magazine has recently published a very interesting article about how Google Glass is being utilized by private firms to develop an additional tool for emergency responders.  More than a year ago, I first suggested some of the potential benefits of Google Glass so it is exciting to see some of those options coming to fruition.

In reality, in 20 years Google Glass may look like an old Mobile "bag" phone or a clunky brick (ala Zach Morris from Saved by the Bell).  But Google Glass is the first and most notable device to facilitate real-time, accurate, augmented reality.  The idea of having layers of data is not new (think GIS), but has previously been limited to high processing systems with limited data streams.  With Google Glass (or whatever the future brings), augmented reality is a real possibility where information can be handled in real-time and hands-free format which will ultimately improve the readiness of emergency managers and first responders.

Are we ready for Google Glass?  Probably not yet.  But with forward thinking companies, creative emergency managers, and a little bit of time (less than a decade), augmented reality will become a fundamental tool to improve the preparedness of our communities for emergencies and disasters.


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August 28, 2013

I ran across the term "Smartsourcing" this morning and was very intrigued.  While it isn't a new term and technically is a process approach for outsourcing, I think the term should be borrowed by emergency managers for a slightly different purpose.

Emergency management has always known there was a need for strategic and community partners ranging from volunteers, private donations, and other response organizations to properly respond.  But for a variety of reasons, many organizations engage in turf wars, trust issues, or other challenges that often limit and reassign some of this possibility of strategic partnership.  This doesn't seem "smart".

For example, CERT programs are availabe throughout the country, but are inconsistently applied (for the reasons above).  I, myself, have struggled with this issue of trying to utilize these highly trained volunteers in ways that match their skills and training.  However, I've begun to dabble with utilizing these types of volunteers in ways to support new frontiers like social media monitoring and public preparedness education.

As emergency managers face the future, we have to be smarter at how we prepare our communities.  Long standing practices are tried and true, but may not be as effective we would like in the modern landscape of our communities.  Let's get smarter and find ways to use potential sources of community support to ready our communities for future challenges.


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August 28, 2013

It occurred to me recently (after a brief conversation with Dr. Tom Phelan related to a previous blog posting) that I should probably explain to readers why they should read this blog -- A reader's guide, if you will.

It's not necessarily for education (although I do hope to occasionally share some interesting nuggets of information).  There are already many great emergency management & preparedness blogs (ex: iDisaster) that provide cutting edge information on new trends or best practices in modern emergency management.

It's not necessarily for technical analysis or interpretation like the Alerts & Notifications blog.  Likewise, it's not for high level academic and political analysis like Gerald Baron's Crisis Comm blog. It's not even an ear-to-the-ground process blog like that provided by Eric Holdeman.  Those are all great, but they aren't the main focus of this blog.

This blog -- Disasters 2.0 -- is intended to look toward the future and consider when, where, why, and how the emergency management will move forward as a profession, industry, and protector of local communities given the dynamic and changing expectations of the public at large.  I want to create thought provoking questions that put us on the brink of change.  I fully expect people to disagree with what I write.  It is going to take discord now to move us closer to unity of action in the future.  I don't want to argue right and wrong, just to answer the question: "Is this better?".

So read this blog.  And read other blogs from the smart and talented people mentioned above and the many others who slave away to provide great content.


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August 19, 2013

Last week I attended an Emergency Management course at the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) in Emmitsburg, MD.  Over the course of the week, I was struck by a strange dilemma that ultimately impacts many professional emergency management areas. 

Specifically, I was quickly disappointed to find that the training rooms did not have access to a WiFi internet signal.  This issue was later provided to not be an oversight when the course instructors and related materials encouraged the audience to keep electronics (including laptops) put away due to their potential distraction to the other students.

This presents quite the paradox.  I work at an Institute of Higher Education where access to internet and full integration with digital devices is not only made available, but highly encouraged before, during, and after meetings.  While I fully acknowledge that schools tend to be on the front edge of this type of behavior, I was surprised how discouraged it was at the primary training facility for professional emergency managers.

This division is, of course, not unique to emergency management training, but rather is growing in all our communities.  The number of citizens "cutting the cord" for traditional media and devices is growing exponentially where some citizens either do all or most of their information access via mobile devices only!

Emergency Managers -- if they haven't already -- must now decide how to balance their time.  Unfortunately, it is beginning to look more and more like emergency managers will have to chose whether to move forward with the trends and embrace and integrate the use of digital technologies or continue to try and cater to the needs of those who are not.  This is a delicate balance and in the end may ultimately do a disservice to both rather than to help better prepare our communities for emergencies and disasters.


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May 15, 2013

During Google's annual I/O Development Conference, CEO Larry Page mentioned that the cost of raw material of a mobile phone is approximately $1.  That was profound to me!  Cell phone devices routinely sell for hundreds of dollars with individuals lining up to be an early or first adopter of the product.  That is an extraordinary return on investment for the various manufacturers of mobile devices.  Clearly this added value is based on a variety reasons, but most often because it allows people to exchange in community, conversation, tools, and social networking.

What is the lesson for emergency managers?  What can we learn about adding value to our community considering that most of our communities have minimal staffing and limited resources for "raw materials"?  The following is a few opportunities:

MOBILITY

Emergency management professionals often expect our constituents and customers to come to us for information.  We anchor relevant information to our offices, brochures, websites, and minimally used social media systems.  Instead, we must actively and intentionally engage in taking our information whenever and wherever they want it, which may change dynamically as new systems and methods of information are identified and developed.

COMMUNITY & CONVERSATION

Emergency managers often struggle to engage in conversation with our community.  Because we are responsible for directing the process to respond and recover from dynamic and often uncontrollable events, we forget to stay engaged in community and conversation before and after these types of events occur.  We expect our constituents to listen and comply -- without question or concern - instead of working with them to understand the issues and establish common and shared priorities.

ADDED VALUE

One of the coolest features about mobile devices is the dynamic and ever-changing possibilities that are created.  System and program developers are given key access to certain systems and ultimately build engagement tools, devices, and systems that add value to the basic and "raw" materials in the original unit.  This same approach should be applied by emergency managers by better utilizing volunteers, community partnerships, and private engagement in ways above and beyond the standard approach, which typically limits the location and input into strategic areas.  

While these characteristics are a unique consideration for each organization involved, they are an excellent place to begin to change our focus and outreach.  How much are you worth?  How can we all add value to our organizations and community.  Let's all strive to be something our community actively wants and is willing to engage in routinely and repeatedly.  Only then will we really begin to create preparedness momentum.


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May 14, 2013

Last week a colleague pointed out an interesting phenomenon related to social media systems.  One of the first systems available to the public was a blog.  Blogs were great communication tools and allowed people to publish their own content without limits to the amount of text used or on the topic presented.  Eventually social networks like Facebook rose in popularity.  These systems limited the amount of information that could be posted to just over 400 characters or a couple of sentences at the most.  The next phase was microblogging systems like Twitter that capped the amount of information to no more than 140 characters.  The most recent development was systems like Pinterest that initially present only photos in a categorical fashion.  

This development cycle is particularly interesting in its application for emergency managers.  It speaks to the need to be brief with the information that is sent and received before, during, and after disasters.  It is no longer effective to simply provide long expository messages about the dynamics of a given situation.  Rather, emergency managers and crisis communicators must be capable of stating their message in long form (blogs), medium form (Facebook), short form (Twitter), and in one solitary image (Pinterest).  

Much progress has been made on how emergency managers should utilize blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, but Pinterest is very challenging.  Very few  professional uses exist, but clearly we need to begin to expand how we approach this tool and the consideration of stating our message without words, but still full of purpose.


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