Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Crisis Information Management

Emma Tonkin offers a review of a thought-provoking overview of crisis informatics.

In her introduction to this collection, Hagar [1] – who coined the term ‘crisis informatics’ [2] - begins by providing the following definition of the term ‘crisis’ (taken from Johnston, The Dictionary of Human Geography,  2002 [3]) - ‘an interruption in the reproduction of economic, cultural, social and/or political life’. This book discusses crises as diverse as wartime disruption, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, viruses and terrorist activity.

As a central theme, the concept of crisis is broad. These events are as varied in their impact as in their duration. As described in this book, some of these events, such as discussions of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes and volcanic eruption in Indonesia, are, whilst extremely destructive, also brief in duration and in aftermath. Other chapters describe crises that are several years in length, such as Semaan et al’s documentation of the experiences of civilians living in Iraq during the second Gulf War and the conflicts that preceded it. In fact, this is likely to be a result of the contributors’ varied viewpoints, focuses and methods of investigation. Contributors describe their research in their own words and frames of reference. Some contributors consider the long-term aftermath in their contributions, whilst others do not.

Considering the book as a work of synthesis, it is as well to state my major criticism as early as possible: the book never brings together the lessons and findings from these case studies. There is no final chapter which analyses the various contributions, so no general overview of the roles of libraries in crisis information management is presented to the reader, although Hagar’s introduction (p. 1) goes some way towards this. This is something of a pity, primarily because so many situations are explored in authors’ contributions, in which libraries and library networks take many different roles, both short- and long-term, in crisis warning, mitigation and management. A synthesis would be very useful, just to give the reader a framework through which to think back through the book’s ten chapters.

Structure of the Book

The book has a very straightforward structure, presenting a series of studies and reviews in crisis information management. Not all chapters involve specific events or types of event; some review technologies or suggest ideas of relevance to crisis informatics.

Chapter 1, written by Semaan, Mark and Al-Ani, reports on interview-driven studies focusing on experiences of the Gulf War and the Israel-Lebanon war. This chapter discusses the immediate needs for support, such as moment-to-moment information needs on subjects such as transportation information and sharing, sharing class notes with students who are unable to attend classes and arranging work from day to day. The authors also cover the longer-term effects on society in the aftermath of war. Returning to the previous point made about the breadth of the concept of ‘crisis’, Semaan et al make a distinction between crisis and disaster: disasters disrupt society to the extent that ordinary life is put on hold. Disruption caused by war, on the other hand, may last for several years. Citizens’ social life, education, and work, their daily routine, all must continue.

In Chapter 2, Heverin and Zach (p.25) describe a research study exploring Twitter as a crisis communication tool for law enforcement agencies. They describe the role of public information officers, analogous to that of public relations officers in other contexts, in distributing information to the public; some agencies make use of social media for this purpose. Of 60 major cities in the USA, Heverin and Zach found that 30 had active, publicly available Twitter accounts; they collected tweets from these accounts and supplemented analysis of this content with a sequence of interviews. The chapter clarifies the viewpoints held by law enforcement agency officers towards Twitter in particular and social media tools in general.

The Twitter theme continues into chapter 3 (p.43), which discusses a proposed syntax for enabling ‘citizen reporting’ through the medium of microblogs. This approach depends on what is essentially structured tweeting, with specialised hashtags (subject location, as well as metadata indicators such as #name #loc #info and #contact) used to ‘mark up’ a tweet. The approach raises questions from a user perspective, not least because it clearly requires substantial explanation. The authors themselves note that problems with usability remain. However, the authors provide evidence that the syntax was used successfully in a number of contexts. One question unanswered in this chapter might be just how much more difficult it would be to parse tweets without this mark-up.

Chapter 4 discusses disaster ‘as a social process’, which is to say, both an event and an event viewed through the eyes of observers. As such, crisis events leave behind a legacy; Liu, Palen and Giaccardi (p.65) argue that this heritage should not be lost.Three cases are discussed: Bhopal [4], September 11th [5] and Hurricane Katrina [6]. In the remainder of the chapter, an agenda is set out for the elicitation and preservation of peoples’ stories.

The subsequent chapter returns to support of information during a crisis, in this case the UK’s 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The approaches adopted to information seeking, both through formal and informal channels, are discussed, alongside the types of information and support sought. The channels available (Internet, telephone and television, for example) and their uses are reviewed and discussed.

Gannon (p. 103) discusses Ericsson Response, a volunteer subset of employees from Ericsson who provide support for aid missions . Ericsson Response linked to UN aid agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN’s World Food Program. The chapter separates phases of emergency response into ‘first response’ (days 1-14), ‘establishment’ (days 15-30) and consolidation (days 30+). The initial phase involves establishing accessible and usable security communications, meeting the needs of first responders and ensuring available inter-agency communication; the second involves stabilisation and expansion of operations, whilst the third shifts to restoration of normal services. This article sets the scene for thinking about crisis operations so effectively that it is a pity that it did not appear earlier in the reading order.

Chapter 7, too, provides an overview: this time of the components of the information environment. The authors make the point that information must be accessible to be of use. Data visualisation and exploration for collaborative problem-solving and information sharing is, by and large, the focus of this chapter. This chapter is a little disjointed, but nonetheless makes many useful points for system designers.

Chapter 8 – which shares many themes with Chapter 6, which perhaps should be adjacent in the reading order for this reason - returns to a detailed case study, this time of the role of a community radio initiative, the Internet and social media in response to emergency situations such as volcanic eruptions. The key point made in this chapter is that living in a high-risk area means that the potential for natural disaster is part of residents’ everyday life. A permanent radio station set up for locals living in the area of an active volcano, intended as an emergency service, proved itself to the extent that the approach was consolidated, reproduced and developed to enable monitoring and reporting, information sharing and communication. Significantly, people who had experienced the events themselves were able to share their stories through this medium.

The Library in Crisis Management

Chapter 9 focuses on the role of the public library in crisis management, through discussion of hurricane response on the Gulf Coast of the USA. The chapter describes libraries as a centre for various service roles, particularly information dissemination, assistance in administrative activities such as relief aid requests, facilitating communication between authority and individuals, and providing emotional support and comfort. The discussion includes a review of the phases involved in crisis preparation, response and recovery and the tools that are available for that purpose.

The final chapter provides an analogous discussion, this time a comparative analysis of the role of academic libraries. Thematically and in subject specifics it connects well with the previous chapter, since two case studies discussed involve the Deepwater Horizon [7] and Hurricane Katrina [6], again taking place on the Gulf Coast. The point is made that academic libraries are well-connected and often well-equipped to provide some level of support, but equally that specialist libraries may have unavoidable priorities of their own: for example, the need to protect rare, even unique collections.

The Curious Case of the Missing Crisis

This book successfully highlights ways in which the library can support the information needs of many stakeholders during events such as those described above. However, the crisis that has led to the quiet closure of more than 200 libraries in the UK during 2012 [8] was neither flood nor riot; rather, the cause was economic in nature. Library closures in the UK, US and Ireland mean that the public can no longer count on the availability of a local library [9]. There is something rather odd about the book’s silence on the subject of economic crises. As far as they go, the book’s remarks on the public library or academic library’s role(s) in disaster management seem eminently solid, and yet as the distances between user and diminishing numbers of libraries increase, the argument for treating them as local centres for disaster response become less relevant, as do the arguments for treating libraries as community centres.

Today, library systems support the information needs of those affected by economic crisis. In the UK and internationally, libraries offer services for the unemployed , such as training in IT skills and programming [10], helping readers search for jobs and providing them with necessary Internet access [11]. According to Rooney-Browne [12], demand for UK library services rises as the economy declines. Miller [13] and Becker et al [14] describe a similar rise in US library demand. There is considerable historical precedent, too, for library involvement in mitigating economic crisis, deprivation and poverty. During the Great Depression library organisations not only sought political change [15], but also spread information where there was none [16]; for example, the ‘pack horse librarian’, women of the Appalachian mountains who delivered books to remote schools and residences [17]. The library network has a long history of providing information in the absence of alternative infrastructure. It would be good for the book to talk a little more about information provision and knowledge sharing in crisis, when consolidation and the need to return to normality are primary concerns.


Overall this book is a very worthwhile read. Almost all chapters work well as standalone articles, and taken together the chapters present an insightful overview of the issues and themes currently dominant in crisis informatics. One criticism of the book is that it does not separate clearly between informatics requirements during a disaster and those required once the immediate danger is past, when the main aim is to help people to re-establish their daily lives and work towards relative normality. It is clear that priorities and requirements are quite different in these times, even though planning for disaster response would involve planning for both of these cases.


  1. Hagar, Christine (2011). Crisis Information Management: Communication and technologies. Chandos Information Professional Series.  ISBN-13: 978 1 84334 647 0
  2. Palen, Leysia, Sarah Vieweg, Jeannette Sutton, Sophia B. Liu, and Amanda Hughes. (2007). Crisis Informatics: Studying Crisis in a Networked World. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on E-Social Science, Ann Arbor, MI, Oct 7-9, 2007.
  3. Johnston, R. J. (2002). Dictionary of human geography (pp. 123-5). 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  4. Bhopal recalls gas leak disaster. BBC news, 11:43 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/business/2009/bhopal/default.stm
  5. 9/11: Ten Years on. BBC News 8 February 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14760962
  6. Hurricane Katrina. BBC News 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/americas/05/katrina/html/default.stm
  7. BBC News BP oil disaster (Deepwater Horizon Disaster). BBC News. 8 February 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special_reports/oil_disaster/
  8. Flood, Alison (2012). UK lost more than 200 libraries in 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/dec/10/uk-lost-200-libraries-2012
  9. O’Connor, Sean (2011). Public and Academic Library Closures in the U.S., U.K., and Eire, Part I. http://www.examiner.com/article/public-and-academic-library-closures-the-u-s-u-k-and-eire-part-i
  10. Manchester 2013. Digital sessions for unemployed women http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/500142/library_news_and_events/5914/free_training_sessions/1
  11. FT.com (2009) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0cfee4a6-7df7-11de-8f8d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2NkWTL4kb
  12. Christine Rooney-Browne, (2009) "Rising to the challenge: a look at the role of public libraries in times of recession", Library Review, Vol. 58 Iss: 5, pp.341 – 352.
  13. Miller, Rebecca (2010). Fundraising in the Downturn. Library Journal, v135 n1 p48-50, January 2010.
  14. Becker, S., Crandall, M.D., Fisher, K.E., Kinney, B., Landry, C., & Rocha, A. (2010). Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries. (IMLS-2010-RES-01). Institute of Museum and Library Services. Washington, D.C.
  15. Luyt, B. (2007). The ALA, public libraries and the Great Depression. Library History, 23(2), 85-96.
  16. Jordan, Angela. (2012). Libraries During the Great Depression. http://archives.library.illinois.edu/ala/libraries-during-the-great-depression/
  17. Boyd, Donald C. (2007). The Book Women of Kentucky: The WPA Pack Horse Library Project, 1936-1943.

Author Details

Emma Tonkin
Research Officer
University of Bath

Email: e.tonkin@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/ukoln/staff/e.tonkin/

Emma Tonkin is now a research programmer at KCL. Previously, she was employed as Technical Innovation Co-ordinator at UKOLN, University of Bath. Originally educated as a physicist, she discovered an interest in human-computer interaction and has worked around technology and the Web ever since, continuing her studies at the University of Bristol. At UKOLN, she worked on a number of JISC-funded projects, including: metadata authoring tools; repository registries; palaeoclimate data management; low-cost pervasive computing; and text analysis. Emma is a co-moderator of the Dublin Core Registry community, the Dublin Core Social Tagging interest group and an ASIS&T SIG-CR officer.