Thursday, May 17, 2007

Danger is Their Business

Today, I had some time to reflect about the interdisciplinary character of the ISCRAM conference -- the theme of the week -- and to think about what I've learned about the digital rhetoric of crisis management from being here. It's a strange gig for a professional rhetorician, a conference for disaster responders, but readers know that I'm a policy wonk and a longtime technology nerd, so this is actually not much of a departure in coverage here on Virtualpolitik.

I thought that one of the big stories of the conference was the lively debate between John Carroll and Zeno Franco, which I learned about from Brian Sokol of Abt Associates, who was there to talk about information management and Hurricane Katrina. In the interest of fairness, it's worth admitting that I respect Carroll as a real heavy hitter in the field of HCI, and I liked that fact that he already knew several of my interdisciplinary colleagues and Facebook friends at UC Irvine. But Franco certainly scored some points as well about the need for providing real data that shows the usability of technologies for crisis management and the role of human -- specifically political -- factors in effective disaster response.

Franco opened his paper with a real rhetorical flourish: by providing a statistical analysis that categorized all the papers numerically from last year's ISCRAM conference. In addition to his introductory zinger, he also argued that access to advanced technology hadn't improved disaster response time any in the last hundred years. In the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which had only the telegraph, federal troops arrived within 153 minutes, while a century later it took four more days for a full federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Back in my hotel room, I read both of their papers carefully. (I had booked a room in a gypsy caravan, which may not seem so funny to those who are in less comfortable mobile accommodations as a result of displacement from their homes in times of crisis.) I thought that Franco let the Bush administration off much too easily, by placing most of the blame on a Democratic governor and mayor. As someone who has watched the footage of Bush being briefed by crisis managers with excellent data visualization displays, I thought that failures occurred much closer to the political top.

More troubling was what I thought was Franco's disciplinary power play at work in a highly interdisciplinary forum for exchanging ideas about critical and global issues. In short, Franco made it clear that he wanted to see social science formatted papers with methods sections. Then, he even went so far as to dismiss computer science as a "science." I agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan and his Critical Information Studies Manifesto that problem-solving requires interdisciplinary attention and that information access can have its own politics worth studying.

Above, you can see another example of information design from the conference, in which the program sessions were condensed onto color-coded maps and papers and presentations were available on a USB drive. Although this portability is certainly important in crisis management, I thought that overall it was a design failure because I found the laminated pages fell off, the ID badges of others were hard to read without midriff staring, and that at least once I went to the wrong room for a session, since the multiple stories of the building weren't accurately represented.

I spent the rest of the day in the Hague geeking out on early virtual reality (the Mesdag Panorama), augmented reality (the audio guide commentary on the displays at the Mauritshuis Museum), information aesthetics (the M.C. Escher museum), and spatial data representation (the miniature village Madurodam, which was created as a monument to a young political prisoner who died in Dachau).

Labels: , ,