Information flow crucial to effective disaster response

Just three months before Hurricane Katrina chewed through the Gulf Coast in August 2005, IT executive Steven Cooper left his top-dog post at Homeland Security to become the chief information officer at the American Red Cross. It wasn't the first time Cooper had taken a new job, only to face enormous, unexpected challenges. He joined Eli Lilly & Co. right before Congress began investigating drug makers for reaping allegedly unfair profits, and hired on with fiber-optic maker Corning, Inc., shortly before a shift in the telecom industry sharply reduced the need for fiber optic products.

Then President Bush appointed Cooper as the first CIO at the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. His first task: to coordinate the IT operations of the 22 agencies that compose the newly created organization. Overnight, he had 190,000 direct customers — the employees of Homeland Security — along with a mandate to secure the country's precious information assets while safeguarding citizens' privacy.

Building IT mechanisms in a hurricane

Speaking to IT executives attending "Cultivating and Securing the Information Supply Chain," a symposium sponsored by W. P. Carey School's Center for Advancing Business through Information Technology (CABIT), Cooper made his tough assignments sound easy. But none of it was easy, a fact Cooper made clear as he described how unprepared the Red Cross was for a disaster the size and scope of Katrina.

For example, when four back-to-back hurricanes battered Florida in 2004, the Red Cross assisted 73,000 families and 156,000 individuals. But more than1.4 million families and 4 million individuals needed help thanks to Katrina, prompting Cooper to ask a rhetorical question, "Can your company scale up 20 times?" His job, and that of his 600-person IT staff, was complicated by the fact that government authorities initially asked them to delay setting up shop in New Orleans, fearing that people who should evacuate might stay put once they saw Red Cross personnel arriving.

Once called in, "we quickly realized that our resources would run out. Within 72 hours, I asked IT companies to send their best and brightest people to a White House meeting" to brainstorm ad hoc solutions. Priorities included figuring out how to share information between shelters, volunteers and residents, but "we had no mechanisms to share information. So we built quick little ad hoc databases in the field," Cooper continued.

Another problem was predicting and tracking where dazed, worn-out evacuees would head, so that enough shelters could be made ready by the time they arrived. Aiding the thousands of ailing, disabled and injured people was another challenge, since most of their local medical records were destroyed or inaccessible, lost to the storm. Cooper explained that Katrina delivered an excruciating lesson on "information integration in action, not theory."

But the nation's largest natural disaster also highlighted the value of information and the crucial role played in any organization — government, non-profit or private sector — of the information supply chain, he noted. "What is the value of information? What unit of measurement do I place on information? It doesn't appear on a balance sheet we'd better figure out a way to put it on a balance sheet," Cooper continued. Even in the absence of a Katrina-like disaster, inefficiencies in the information supply chain can sledgehammer company profits.

As Cooper said, "not having the right information at the right time leads to bad decisions." With the help of the White House brainstorming crew, the Red Cross IT team made "extraordinary strides," such as creating an emergency call center mid-disaster. The new center replaced a virtual call-center (telephone operators relayed clients' calls to volunteers, some working from home) that crumbled under the Katrina-related onslaught of an estimated one million calls per day. Cooper is determined to refine those heroic "on-the-fly" solutions into future information-pumping systems.

For example, post-Katrina, he hired Verizon to create a call center designed to triage incoming calls within just a few minutes according to the level of assistance needed. Another throat-clutching crisis was the effort to link family members scattered by the storm and resulting floods. Answer: the Red Cross "safe and well" Web site, forged in the middle of the crisis, that lets people search for loved ones who've reported in to the disaster response system.

The Katrina experience convinced Cooper that the Red Cross and other disaster-response organizations need to collaborate more. One early outgrowth is a national shelter database created with the assistance of other government and non-government agencies. Another Katrina legacy is new software that helps local Red Cross chapters organize and track services they render to clients. "These are real advances, this is real progress," based on new levels of collaboration in capturing, sharing and disseminating information, he told symposium participants.

Pulling down barriers to collaboration

Cooper posed a provocative question towards the end of his talk: minus the fiery furnace of disaster, when it comes to the information supply chain, "how do we move forward in a collaborative manner?" The first obstacle is that all-too-familiar IT attitude of "it's our data, and we're not sharing it with you," he explains. "Problems plagued the intelligence community for years because they couldn't or wouldn't share information," he noted. "For example, the CIA and FBI don't share well."

But there are potential answers that safeguard data while fostering necessary collaboration. A sample: Cooper described a sort of data brokerage system that allows members of 13 government intelligence agencies to share information. A member posts a data request on a particular individual, organization or subject, and any agency possessing the requested information responds with a "yes."

The data-seeking member then contacts the data-possessing agency. The same concept could be used to share information in other settings without sacrificing data ownership, he theorized. It's definitely time "to get over our Orwellian fears on the use of information," concurred Robert Mittelstaedt, Jr., dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business.

While our widespread fear over the misuse of once-private information is legitimate, our fears prevent us from finding solutions to bigger issues, he told symposium participants. "At the corporate level, we are still not where we need to be in terms of technology and business strategy," Mittelstaedt continued. "Not having information at the right time is a failure of the information supply chain."

Bottom Line:

  • Katrina, the nation's largest natural disaster, highlighted the value of information and the crucial role the information supply chain plays in all organizations.
  • During the Katrina crises, American Red Cross CIO Steve Cooper assembled a group of IT gurus who brainstormed a way to set up ad hoc field databases that allowed shelters, volunteers and residents to share information.
  • One early outgrowth of the Katrina experience is a national shelter data base created with the assistance of other government and non-government agencies.
  • Organizations face the challenge to find ways to collaborate and share data without compromising security.

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