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Turning to Digital Government in a Crisis: Coordinating Government's Response to the World Trade Center Attacks

Summary

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Publications & Results
Issue Briefs (1)
Regional Image
A crisis rarely occurs in one jurisdiction or community; they tend to cross multiple geographic and organizational boundaries. The effects of the World Trade Center attacks, for example, extended far beyond New York City and the effects of Hurricane Katrina were felt far beyond the city of New Orleans. Events such as these continue to generate new insights into the coordination across boundaries necessary to ensure effective response to incidents—both natural and man-made.

Reports (2)
Lessons from the World Trade Center Response Cover
The experience of September 11th was not an experience that government sustained by itself. Rather, it was an experience that crossed the public, private and nonprofit sectors and holds lessons for organizations of all kinds and sizes. In June 2004, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University at Albany, SUNY, put together a panel that represented these different perspectives.

The panel focused on ways in which the World Trade Center experience has, should, or might influence all organizations in what we now call “normal times.”

The following is an overview and an abridged transcipt of the panel discussion.

Research into what organizations did in the midst of the World Trade Center crises and response provides valuable lessons for improving crisis response and emergency management and planning. Equally important, the lessons reveal that interdependencies of human, organizational, and technological resources may benefit overall government operations in normal times.

Publications

Gil-Garcia, J.R., Harrison, T., Juraga, D., Pardo, T., & Thompson, F. (Nov, 2004).The Structuring of GIS Technologies: The World Trade Center Crisis as a Change Episode. Poster accepted for presentation at the American Society For Information Science And Technology, Providence RI.

Dawes, S.S., Birkland, T., Tayi, G., & Schneider, C. (forthcoming). Information, Technology, and Coordination: Lessons from the World Trade Center Response. Albany, NY: Center for Technology in Government.

Dawes, S.S., Cresswell, A. M., & Cahan, B.B. (2004) Learning from Crisis: Lessons in Human and Information Infrastructure from the World Trade Center Response. Social Science Computer Review, 22, 1, 5-10.

Dawes, S.S., Cahan, B.B., & Cresswell, A. M. (May, 2003) Turning to Digital Government in a Crisis. Paper presented at the National Digital Government Research Conference, dg.o2003, Boston.

Lessons Learned

While the data collected in this exploratory study is necessarily limited, and our analysis is incomplete, we have identified a number of preliminary lessons and areas for further study in a larger future investigation. These preliminary lessons cover technology, data, preparedness, interorganizational relations, social capital considerations, and policy issues. A sample:

Technology lessons

  • The Internet worked when other networks failed. The World Wide Web and Internet telephony were critical in the early hours when both wired and cellular telephone service massively failed.
  • Wireless computing capabilities were essential although not widespread. The use of wireless has been greatly expanded since 9/11.
  • Communications networks that were thought to be redundant were actually running on the same infrastructure. Rebuilt networks must be diverse and redundant across geography, providers, and technologies
  • GIS emerged as the most versatile analytical tool, but also emphasized the need for well-understood data management techniques and data quality control.
  • Flexible and adaptive use of existing or emerging applications allowed quick response to unexpected situations. For example a severe weather advisory application was adapted to notify city residents of changes in transportation systems and availability of housing, water, and electricity.
  • Uneven capabilities and incompatible information systems hampered action and increased danger for first responders.
  • Overall, policy makers need a more sophisticated understanding of IT capabilities and limitations in order to lead effectively in future events.

Data lessons

  • Mapping and geographic data analysis were crucial to response, recovery, and public information. From visualizing the temperature and internal structure of the debris pile to notifying commuters of restored subway service, maps conveyed essential information to a variety of audiences.
  • Critical information replicated in different locations allowed for quick recovery - but not for everyone.
  • Public information mechanisms must be accurate, timely, authoritative, accessible, and diverse. An unusual alliance among the press and the emergency operations center allowed authoritative information to be pooled and released through a variety of media outlets.
  • Data coordination and integration problems surfaced quickly and continue to persist. For example, multiple lists of the dead and missing needed continually to be reconciled.
  • Data issues (quality, access, use, sharing, security) far outweighed technology problems and were, and remain, harder to solve.

Preparedness lessons

  • Emergency responders were well-trained and able to act, but not always in coordination. Probably the most visible long-term effect of the attack is greater, more detailed attention to preparedness for future emergencies.
  • Competence and experience in all agencies paid off. In several instances, the main difference between routine operations and crisis operations was the scale of the effort. All the needed processes and competencies were in place and readily deployable.
  • Preparation for "Y2K" was invaluable for both government and business. For many organizations, preparation for the Year 2000 date change was the first time they had considered business continuity and business recovery strategies. Many of these were activated following the attack.
  • Most nonprofits and local governments remain "have nots" in terms of technology, preparedness, and response capability. Although crucial to community response capabilities, smaller organizations seldom have the expertise, tools, or depth of staff that their larger counterparts do. As a result their capacity to respond and to sustain a response is relatively weaker and slower.

Social capital and relationship lessons

  • Some of the most successful activities rested on years of relationship and trust building among key individuals. Familiarity and perceived competence among people who had worked together for many years helped work move smoothly and quickly in the absence of formal procedures.
  • Information continues to play a powerful role in traditional organizational rivalries
  • Public service is a community value, not just a government function. The social capital of New York City is immense and contributed greatly to the response and recovery. Public-private-nonprofit cooperation was unprecedented. At times more resources came forward than could possibly be put to use.

Information policy questions

In the aftermath, crucial information policy questions presented themselves. For example:

  • How should we now balance a "trio of public values"-- security, privacy, and responsible public access to information.
  • What are the risks, benefits, and limits of information sharing and integration—and how do we want government to manage them?
  • How can the digital divide between large and small agencies and jurisdictions be narrowed so that all communities are adequately prepared to communicate and act in a crisis?