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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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Scope of Work
On the morning of September 11, 2001, two hijacked jetliners flew into the upper floors of World Trade Towers in New York. Thousands died; tens of thousands were evacuated from Lower Manhattan. When the towers collapsed, the 16-acre heart of New York's financial district lay in complete ruin. A quarantine of the City below 14th Street kept thousands more from their homes, jobs, and businesses.

Available evidence about the government responses to the attacks indicates that information technology played a critically important role. Effective use of a variety of information technologies helped government agencies to better cope with and respond to the multiple crises, and ongoing recovery demands, resulting from the attack. At the same time, the severity of these crises was exacerbated by the damage to critical communications and computing infrastructure as well as the absence, loss, or inaccessibility of needed information resources.

Government decision-makers were faced with unprecedented problems, and responded with creative, often unorthodox, solutions. The mixture of people, organizations, institutions, and technology changed through the lifecycle of the response: the challenges of the immediate response (search and rescue, public safety) differed from those in succeeding weeks (debris removal, establishing temporary office spaces, mortuary and bereavement services, public health, and hardening of municipal and other infrastructure) and differed again from future response activities (economic redevelopment of the region, fair compensation, and incentives).

Research into what government agencies did in the midst of these crises, and the role of IT in the events, can provide valuable lessons for improving crisis response and emergency management and planning. Equally important, the preparedness and interdependencies that emergency response warrants put in place human, organizational, and technological resources that may well benefit overall government operations in normal times.

This exploratory study is a partnership between the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany/SUNY and Urban Logic, Inc., a New York City nonprofit organization, which was intimately involved in the response. The study covers five key research themes:

  • Data needs and resources during the response period,
  • The use of information technology in the response,
  • Interorganizational relationships during the response period,
  • The effect of pre-existing resources, plans, or programs on the ability to respond, and
  • The effect of rules and laws on the ability to respond.

The research strategy began by contacting many of those who worked at Pier 92, where New York City's Emergency Operations Center was re-established after its formal EOC was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Towers. By starting with the "nerve center" of the response, rescue, and recovery effort, we have been able to follow and partially document the network of relationships, information flows, and actions that represent a range of governmental responsibilities. A cascading technique allowed us to identify additional informants inside and outside government who played (and continue to play) integral roles in the recovery effort.