Power to the People! Empowering the Public to Help Themselves

Consider not what you would say, but what information others want and need” from the book Should we Risk it?

Mitigation and preparation for low-frequency, high consequence events is like playing a game of chance, where people make decisions based on prospective gains and losses (Kammen and Hassenzahl, 1999; Kahneman and Tversky, 1979). “The odds” of something happening or not, plays into decision-making, but unfortunately, psychology usually plays more of a role in this arena than does rational behavior.

The concept of “Prospect Theory,” which is attributed to Kahneman and Tversky (1979), posits that people will weigh their potential gains and losses, and choose their level of risk based on potential gains, not potential losses. The authors made this argument by stating: “A well-understood process in individual decisions about risk is that people are risk averse (avoiding) when considering potential gains. This means that, in general, when people are deciding to make a bet, they will require better odds when the stakes are high”. In other words, if it would cost someone an extra $5,000 to seismically retro-fit their home, and that is a lot of money to them, they will want to be pretty sure that it is going to be worth the money, and that an earthquake is imminent.

Additionally, there are people (including lawmakers) who will regard any kind of scientific uncertainty as a way of arguing that there is no definitive evidence of a future event happening. For instance, some will use the argument that there are “Too many uncertainties” as way out of funding sustainable development and mitigation projects, in order to divert funding away from what they call “junk science” and toward whatever other agenda they may have (Mooney, 2005). Similarly, there are also people who will criticize earthquake modeling software because of any inherent uncertainties in data or lack of accuracy due to an unskilled analyst; Ultimately, what is actually at risk here is the public’s perception of the danger they are in and what steps they will take to protect themselves in the face of a hazard.

Between battling skeptics about whether or not sea-level rise may affect them, and short-sited politicians who can only see as far as their next election, there is the every-day citizen who needs information about hazards and what to do during an emergency. Some of these people cannot read (about 40% of the adult population in New Orleans is illiterate, for example), some don’t speak English, others don’t have access to social media or television.  How can we better empower people to make informed decisions in the face of catastrophe?

I have created an outline of the things that a planner or emergency management department might think about researching or implementing in order to reach citizens. Please feel free to add any other things that you think would be helpful to the discussion in the comments.

Research on what the community/public does not know. Do they know that they live downstream from a dam? Do they realize that the 100 year flood designation does not protect them from catastrophe; it only takes away the necessity of paying insurance? (etc.)

  • Address community-level risk-perceptions and investigate ways to overcome them
  • Different demographic groups have different risk perceptions; look at the “societal context”
  • Planners should ask themselves: ‘Do end users have the necessary resources to use this information to prepare/respond and recover from a situation?’ and ‘Will the officially recommended action be superior to alternative actions taken by friends, family or conventional wisdom?’

Deploy monthly “Get Prepared” action items via

  • Television
  • Radio
  • Leaflets
  • Newspaper section on preparedness
  • Billboards
  • Written so that readers with elementary education can understand
  • Social Media

Literacy programs, using basic risk literature

  • Planners may be able to write basic literature and partner with literacy programs

Communities to engage in hazard exercises/drills-need to investigate other incentives

Look at “Prospect Theory” people making decisions based on prospective gains or losses.

  • How does application of this theory persuade the public’s mitigation/preparedness/evacuation/ decisions? Addressing and leveraging these attitudes may be an effective way of communicating.

Even when the risk causes and numbers are identical, people care more about man-made than naturally occurring risks”- from the book Should We Risk It?

  • Focusing on communicating the dangers of levees and dams may be better than attempting to warn people about heavy rains and hurricanes. Give it a man-made slant.

Perceptions of Trustworthiness:

Different groups may need to focus on different methods of showing their trustworthiness and communicating effectively:

  • Industry should exhibit concern and care
  • Government should show commitment
  • Citizen groups should exhibit knowledge and expertise

Interacting with churches

  • Pair agency spokesperson with trusted church leader to deliver information

Tailor information to the most vulnerable groups

  • Helping “the most” does not necessarily mean helping the most vulnerable. (It usually means helping the white middle class)


Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk”. Econometrica 2. Vol. 47 (1979): 263-291.

Kammen, Daniel., and David Hassenzahl. Should we Risk it? Exploring Environmental, Health, and Technological Problem Solving. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, (1999.)

Mooney, Chris. The Republican War on Science. Basic Books, New York, NY. (2005).


Haiti Earthquake Anniversary and my 2011 “Wish List”

January 12th is the one year anniversary of the horrific earthquake in Haiti. Unfortunately, things still seem to be in a downward spiral for the Haitians, as cholera and lynchings have spread through the rubble-filled streets in the after-math of the event. Disaster researchers and responders are aware of the effects of earthquakes on unreinforced masonry, as well as “cascading events” or “secondary events” that are caused by the original catastrophe. So where did we go wrong? Yes, this is a very complex situation, with politics and money playing their parts in the story, but over 222 THOUSAND dead? In this day and age? Call me a Pollyanna if you like, but something in the back of my mind is saying “This could have been a lot less severe”. We know too much. Think about it. During Hurricane Katrina the United States lost less than 2 thousand lives—which is nowhere near what Haiti lost.

Haiti’s  massive loss of  life stands in stark contrast to the incredible successes we have seen in other facets of human endeavor. I have been delighted throughout the week by techies in the blogosphere regaling us with tales of the new gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show. Refrigerators than can tweet? A digital Polaroid camera? These are exciting and fun gadgets to think about, but they represent so much more than what they currently are. They represent what could be. If it is becoming economical to tweet from our refrigerators, then will technology and innovation make it economical to prevent such massive loss of life during earthquakes in Haiti (or elsewhere)?

I carry a tiny little computer around in my purse everyday that allows me check and respond to email, find the nearest and cheapest gas station, surf the web, take photos and upload them to social networking sites, and, oh yeah, make phone calls. Amongst all of this magical-seeming innovation I am supposed to believe that we couldn’t prevent such a massive humanitarian crisis? No. I refuse to believe that. Does it bother anyone else that we have 3-D television sets, but we can’t figure out how to prevent massive casualties from what was arguably a predictable event? We can do better than that citizens of planet Earth!

I propose that there needs to be more networking, more collaboration and more idea-sharing amongst disaster professionals and other scientists and technologists from around the world. If only we could light the blogosphere on fire with tales from our own disaster “Consumer Electronics Show” of sorts! Additionally, the Developed and the Under Developed must work hand in-hand to come up with some low-cost, life-saving mitigation and prevention measures.

To that end, I have compiled a rudimentary “Wish List” of conferences that I think would be fantastic events for fostering these types of ideas. Would that I could win the lottery in 2011 and attend them all! Since I am a geospatial disaster geek, I have included some meetings that are heavily Geographic Information Systems – based. While compiling a list of awesome-sounding conferences, I weeded out those that were invitation only, or that I didn’t think sounded compelling enough to shlep across the world for. Yes, this is a somewhat arbitrary list, shaped by my personal interests, but I also think each of them could be a great platform for innovation and collaboration. This is by no means a complete list. Just a place to start, really.

Which conferences are you going to?

How NOT to become a disaster within a disaster

A serious-faced Jennifer Goldsmith at the Joint Field Office in American Samoa. Photo by Jennifer Warren 2010.

You simply cannot be prepared for everything  that life throws at you, but  if you are anything like me, you really try to be.  I have hard-copy notebooks, backed up by thumb drives, backed up by encrypted cloud-based searchable documents that can be pulled up anywhere.  I gather reference documents for work and diligently squirrel them away “just in case” I get out to a disaster office and nobody knows what to do. I may think that I am really preparing myself and I am ready for anything, but alas, I do not know what it is that I do not know. My mettle was tested over the summer when I was deployed to Connecticut to respond to Severe Storms and Flooding. The Mitigation Branch Chief of the disaster wanted to bring in a person with “406 Mitigation experience”, but the job titles in the automated deployment system had changed, so that it was difficult to see who had that kind of experience. When he saw that I was available and had a technical GIS background, he figured that if I didn’t actually have 406 mitigation experience, then at the very least, I might be a quick study. He called me, and after we talked for a few minutes, he decided to deploy me not just as a 406 Mitigation Specialist…BUT AS THE GROUP SUPERVISOR!!! At this point I had already been working in emergency management  for 2 ½ years, so I had the knowledge, resources and contacts to fill in many of the blanks. And there were MANY blanks. No one at the disaster had any real experience doing 406 mitigation, so I had to hunt around looking for information—websites, contacts, and making things up as I went along. I often thought of the saying we use in Emergency Management: “Don’t ask for permission, Ask  for forgiveness.”  I received a very good review from my manager after that deployment. So-here are the most important things that I did to keep my sanity and get the work done. This is for all of you Emergency Management folks out there who get thrown into a new position at a disaster, and want to avoid becoming a disaster yourself!

STRENGTH-FINDING–I listened to my team and tried to learn their strengths, and utilized those strengths, when possible.

PRIORITIZE–If there are multiple projects/meetings/deliverables happening at the same time, I would prioritize them and deploy my team members appropriately.

PREPARED ORGANIZATION–I don’t like to re-invent the wheel, so I keep detailed notes, templates, data sets, formulas, spreadsheets, etc. with me, and take them from disaster to disaster. As a worker, I am well-prepared, but as a manager, having this type of documentation is an essential armament for my team members.

COMMUNICATION–I keep the management up-to-date with my team’s progress using regular emails and spreadsheets. I create group emails, which I regularly used to inform my team of any important project information, without interrupting their work. Rather than long, drawn out meetings, I would pull together quick status update meetings about whatever is at hand, and then get back onto the project work.

These are the things that had the most impact on MY job performance.  What kinds of things have helped you in similar situations?


The Most Deadly Disasters of 2010

It is already the second of January and time to start tallying all of the horrendous events of the new year (I am currently thinking of the 7.1 earthquake that just struck Chile—see the CNN news post here: http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/americas/01/02/chile.earthquake/index.html?hpt=T2).

Or the flooding in Australia—see CNN news post here: http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/01/02/australia.floods/index.html?hpt=T2. Only time will tell how many will be affected by these events.

HOWEVER….I would like to take a moment to reflect on the most deadly disasters of 2010, and dedicate this blog post to those that have died or lost family and friends in these catastrophes in the last 12 months. Here’s hoping 2011 will be a less deadly year.

Date(s) of Event Location Disaster Approx. No. of Deaths
01/12/10 Haiti Earthquake 222570
04/14/10 China Earthquake 2290
07/28/10 Pakistan Flood 1961
08/07/10 China Landslide 1765
5/2010-8/2010 China Flood 1691
02/27/10 Chile Earthquake 562
1/2010-3/2010 Burkina Faso Meningitis Epidemic 428
2/25/2010-3/1/2010 Uganda Landslide 388
4/4/2010-4/7/2010 Brazil Flood 256
3/2010-5/2010 India Heat Wave 250

Data gathered from EM-DAT, The International Disaster Database


URGENT! Haiti Emergency Communications

Our Mission 15 Jan 2010: IMMEDIATE NEWS RELEASE: HELPING HAITI: We are launching an effort for tailoring Tweet messages to help with management of information production for the Haiti disaster. See here for details. Follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/epiccolorado Project EPIC, which launched in September 2009, is supported by a $2.8M grant from the US National Science Foundation. It is multi-disciplinary, multi-university, multi-lingual research effort to support the information needs by members of the public during times of mass emergency. In this age of social media, we bring our behavioral and technical knowledge of “computer mediated communication” to the world of crisis studies and emergency response. As researchers, we are committed to careful study of socio-technical transformation and building human-centered computation. In addition to empirical observational study that requires new ways of studying massive “widescale” coordination across the internet, we conduct “action research” and employ “participatory design” oriented approaches. We aim to look beyond today’s state of the art and anticipate future socio-technical change. Who We Are We are information scientists, computer scientists and computational linguists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of California, Irvine. We specialize in societal transformation in conjunction with technology use; computer-mediated communication studies; software engineering and architectures; information security; network security and computational linguistics with a deep commitment to understanding the domains for which we design and study.

HELPING HAITI: Tweak the Tweet January 14, 2010 Follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/epiccolorado Our team and collaborators are proposing a Tweet-friendly hashtag-based syntax to help direct Twitter communications for more efficient data extraction for those communicating about the Haiti earthquake disaster.

Use only requires modifications of Tweet messages to make information pieces that refer to #location, #status, #needs, #damage and several other elements of emergency communications more machine parsable.

PLEASE HELP US PROPAGATE THIS TWITTER GRAMMAR ACROSS THE NET! Read on for immediate simulated life examples, instructions for deployment, and the initial tag folksonomy for the Haiti disaster. We welcome assistance in language translation for on-the-ground use when that becomes possible, and international deployment. Tweet Examples In Use:

EXAMPLE1: #haiti #imok #name John Doe #loc Mirebalais Shelter #status minor injuries EXAMPLE2: #haiti #need #transport #loc Jacmel #num 10 #info medical volunteers looking for big boat to transport to PAP EXAMPLE3: #haiti #need #translator #contact @pierrecote EXAMPLE4: #haiti #ruok #name Camelia Siquineau #loc Hotel Montana EXAMPLE5: #haiti #ruok #name Raymonde Lafrotune #loc Delmas 3, Rue Menelas #1 EXAMPLE6: #haiti #offering #volunteers #translators #loc Florida #contact @FranceGlobal Mission/Instructions for a Two-Pronged Deployment: 1) Promote grammar through available digital communication channels to get immediate pick-up by people, including those who are affected, emergency personnel, and—perhaps most usefully for immediate use—volunteers To this end, please send out prescriptive examples, such as these:

#haiti pls tweet in the format: #haiti #ruok #name [first last] #loc [location] #contact [@ or #] #haiti pls tweet in the format: #haiti #imok #name [first last] #loc [location] #status [status] #contact [@ or #] #haiti pls tweet in the format: #haiti #need #medical #loc [location] #num #haiti pls tweet in the format: #haiti #offering #shelter #loc [address] #num [amount] #contact [@ or #] #haiti pls use these 1st hashtags: #imok, #ruok, #offering, #need, #damage, #status #haiti pls use these 2nd hashtags: #food #water #shelter #transport #volunteers #translators #fuel #information #haiti pls use these data hashtags: #name [first last] #loc [address, intersection] #num [amount] #contact [@ or #] #haiti pls use these end hashtags: #status [status info] #info [more information, comment]

 The information produced by the syntax will be available for anyone to search and process–no one single source is monitoring the tweets by prearrangement. Volunteers can write programs, scripts, web apps to process this publicly available information into new information resources, possibly web applications or tweet feeds that re-distribute processed info. Please contact us to let us know what you know is happening, and we can help spread the word.

Tags PRIMARY TAG #need #offering #status #imok #ruok #damage #injured #road ….. SECONDARY TAG Need/Offering Descriptor Tags #food #water #fuel #medical of #med #shelter #transport #volunteers… can shorten to #vols #translator #financial or #money #information or #info #supplies [list specific supplies needed] ….. Data tags #name [name] #loc [location] #num [amount or capacity] #contact [email, phone, link, other] #photo [link to photo] #source


#info [other information] Overall order is not as important as tag-descriptor connection. Prescriptive Examples: #haiti #ruok #name [first last] #loc [location, address, or intersection] #contact [email or phone #] #haiti #imok #name [first last] #loc [location, address, or intersection] #status [status] #contact [@ or #] #haiti #need #medical #loc [location, address, or intersection] #status [status] #num [number or capacity] #haiti #need #transport #loc [address] #num [amount] #contact [@ or #] #info [more description] #haiti #need #volunteers #medical #loc [address] #num [amount] #contact [@ or #] #info [more description] #haiti #need #transport #loc [address] #loc [address] #num [amount] #info [more description] #haiti #offering #shelter #loc [address] #num [amount] #contact [@ or #] #haiti #road #loc [location of road closure]i #status closed

Crisis Mapping and Techies for Haiti Event TODAY!

Hello friends,

So sorry about the short notice, but I JUST found out about this event today.  A “meeting of the minds” if you will–techies of all stripes are gathering today to see about what can be done for Haiti relief/recovery. Here in Denver, this event starts at 11:30am and goes till 6pm.  There are several of these events happening all around the country today, so check on which one may be nearest to you. There is still time to participate!  Check the link below for more information:


Credit Cards Skimming your charitable donations!


This doesn’t surprise me one bit. In the last couple of years here in the U.S. we have been dealing with these bottom-feeding credit card companies.  To hear that they charge some kind of a special fee every time someone uses their credit card to make a charitable donation to Haiti Earthquake relief (or anywhere else for that matter), is horrible, but expected.  They are scum, you know. Now don’t get me wrong.  I realize that they are running a “business”, if you can call it that.  Unfortunately it seems that there are really no limits to the lengths that they will go to make a buck for themselves.  Ya know, with all of  the drama over the economic crisis in the last year, you would think that these companies might even consider throwing their hat in the ring as far as the Haiti relief goes–as this could actually be a chance for them to get some good press/PR.  NOPE. NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

I feel fortunate to have banished all credit cards from my life in 2006–before the economic crisis even started.  I paid them off and never looked back.  Not to say that it wasn’t difficult and nerve-racking.  I did have to put together a big emergency fund for myself to fall back on, and I had to pull myself out of the mire of outrageous interest rates.  I implore you all to do the same. If not for yourself, then do it for Haiti! 

Further, use your debit cards to make a donation for Haiti.  If you don’t have the money to send, don’t send any at all.  Don’t give money you don’t have! 

Please read the original article below  for more information on this scandalous situation.