Project Team

Real-Time Emergency Response

A project for the Mozilla Ignite Challenge

Users and Use Cases

Initial Use Cases

At the outset of our project, we envisioned two complementary technologies being used in a disaster or emergency response scenario, one by the command or dispatch centers, and another by the first responders in the field.

Immersive Visualization Environment

The first technology was intended for the use of operators in the command or dispatch centers, offering them with an immersive view of the environment relevant to the disaster or emergency.

High-level comments from individuals familiar with disaster and emergency response scenarios suggest that the immersive visualization capabilities as seen in our demo video may well remain relevant for the command or dispatch centers. However, the following use cases remain speculative until we are able to engage in more detailed discussions with them.

Augmented Reality Smartphone

The second technology was anticipated for the use of first responders, e.g., fire crews, paramedics, earthquake, flood, or hurricane response teams.

However, the use of smartphone cameras and augmented reality displays as described above raises several concerns. For many of these user roles, we expect that once dispatched, they may well be used to operating largely autonomously from the command center. In this case, improved communication tools might be inappropriate, and potentially distracting from their primary tasks. Moreover, in many hazardous environments, the technologies would likely not be sufficiently robust to remain usable.

User Roles in Emergencies and Disasters

Information management during emergency and disaster response is a heavily layered group activity in which the personnel comprise a variety of roles, for example:

Those higher up in the list are physically closer to the actual event and likely more focused on real-time information.

Parsing and prioritizing of data without imposing additional cognitive or attentional load on ERT is an overriding concern. This might be facilitated by some combination of:

Virtual volunteers

We now expand on the persona of the virtual volunteers, as the first group of users for whose needs our technology is intended to serve. The details below were based primarily on discussion with an expert in disaster preparation planning, mitigation, response and recovery.

Virtual volunteers are "activated" when an incident occurs. They work online scouring social media and news; some receive information directly from the ERT/PIO. They collect and parse this information primarily for use after the fact in coordinating recovery and relief. Sometimes, when they deem information immediately important, they will send it back to the PIO so that it can be relayed to the ERT. Thus, the virtual volunteers act as information foragers and filterers. During activation, group membership is dynamic, and thus, some form of briefing or handoff of information is necessary during transitions of personnel or for bringing new members up to speed.

Outside of activations, they also monitor social media and news for bad press, negative comments or simply for inactivity. They alert agencies, e.g., FEMA, when they are receiving criticism and bad publicity (example cited during Sandy relief efforts when the agency's web page was not being updated, giving a false impression of unresponsiveness when in fact, they were working hard in the field) and assist them in taking action to try and remedy the situation, e.g., posting updates on social media, responding directly to criticism.

Virtual volunteers currently use the following tools:

Improved Understanding of Users and Roles

As we learned more about their role, we soon realized that virtual volunteers would be an ideal group for whom to target our initial development of technology. In particular, the visualization capabilities originally conceived for dedicated CAVE-like facilities in the EOC could be deployed for virtual volunteers on conventional single-display machines for their use. This would be a natural fit, since the virtual volunteers already work with large amounts of information and serve an important role in filtering this data for possible relay to the EOC and ultimately, the ERT. Since they are not on-site at the scene of the disaster or emergency, they are less constrained in terms of use of equipment and access to reliable network connectivity, making them well suited as early adopters.

Our objective would be to explore initial use of our prototype technology with the virtual volunteer community as potential initial adopters of the technology. Based on the lessons learned from this community, and ideally, with demonstrations of the technology serving well in this role, we would then hope to use this as a point of entry into further use cases within the actual EOC.

Concerns of the virtual volunteers include:

Points we still need to refine (for discussion with Scott):

Philosophies for Command and Control Information Systems

The Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) philosophy is succinctly explained by Turoff, Philosophies for Command and control information systems, Comm. ACM 45 (4), April 2002. This articulates a number of guiding principles, some of which are obvious in retrospect, but are worth studying as we contemplate the role of the technologies in the intended context of use. In particular, Turoff notes:

Turoff observes, based on the assumptions of the OEP, that "an emergency response information system must be viewed as a structured group communication system..."

Next Steps

Our next priority is to develop a formal user persona, working further with contacts within the virtual volunteer community. This will help us refine the use cases and think carefully about the priorities of functionality as we work toward the next round of development.