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Using the Hourglass to Respond to Questions in a Crisis

Here at EPA, we were quite busy this spring providing information about radiation levels resulting from the earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japanese nuclear reactors. Check out the site!

Now we’re thinking about lessons learned, and one thing I came up with was a concept of a question/answer “hourglass,” where we take in questions from multiple channels and issue the same answers through multiple channels. While the input/output channels overlap a lot, they don’t totally coincide

I know this is hardly a new concept, and I’ve heard “no wrong door” before, but what was new, or at least, was new for us during a crisis, was the addition of directly responding via social media. Until now, we haven’t really responded to people much via Facebook, Twitter, etc. I wrote earlier about the special challenges of using social media to respond during a crisis. Now, with some time to think, I’m looking at how to best arrange things so we bake it in, rather than bolting it on.

So here’s my concept in visual form. Please forgive the formatting in the graphic below – my emphasis was on speed, not beauty.

In case you’re not familiar with Socrata (see the lower left corner), it’s a data provision/exploration site that we’ve used in both the BP spill and the Japanese radiation response to provide raw data. Socrata is also now operating data.gov.

Whatcha think?

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Chris Poirier

This is rather timely as I just wrote on the same topic from a slightly different angle. (Digital PIO and Process/Social Media).

I think you nailed the concept. As I mentioned in both of my writing the key is to focus on the process and refine process over the use of the tools. Social media and tools allow us to push content in more ways then we used to, but this shouldn’t change our approach to who needs the information and in what format. Just the delivery mechanic changes as the technology changes. So, the key remains that ever important validation, review, etc stage prior to pushing out information.

The next step in this process flow is to figure out and ensure that the “feedback loop” works and we really open up communications into a “two-way street” allowing for direct citizen engagement.

-CGP (http://christopherpoirier.com)

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey Jeffrey – As always, thanks for sharing back to the community, helping others to learn from your efforts. A couple questions to tease out more details:

1) Who is involved in the Categorize, Prioritize and Draft aspect?

2) Same for Review, Edit, Approve – who?

3) Can you share a bit more about how you’ve found ways to streamline those two processes? Especially in a crisis, but overall that’s where a lot of communications folks are getting tripped up – by legal or IT or another stakeholder that is well-intentioned but slows down response time.


Chris Poirier

@Andrew I think a lot of your questions can be answered in many ways. For instance, in emergency management questions 1 and 2 both are handled by the EOC working with the PIO hand in hand. Things are typically filtered to a single place/team in the EOC to be racked and stacked for situation awareness and communications as appropriate. (For this task a lot of EOCs use incident management tools like ETeam and WebEOC or even custom SharePoint sites.) For question 3, in this model, the streamline comes from the nature of the EOC. Single points for in take and out put after the “machine” has crunched the data. As stated these are reenforced by existing tools.

Outside the emergency management world is where you would get into issues with IT, legal, etc as information will be handled like press releases in a normal day-to-day business cue. But like most things this is a process and knowledge management issue more so than a tool/social media problem. Having solid information intake, processing, and output processes in place will help stream line the capability. (ie, involving legal, IT, etc as required in the direct line process. DHS does this for a lot of their state and local reporting. )

Obviously, the larger issue in the room is available resources. Lacking the resources slows the entire process down as well, especially depending on the amount of intake that needs to be validated. As I mentioned in my “Digital PIO” piece a lot of places are turning to volunteers or “voluntolds” to help staff up these functions in emergencies. (providing training, etc.)