Networks of responders

Raffaele Giordano and Alessandro Pagano (CNR-IRSA)

Crisis decision-making and its enactment demands the coordinated involvement of experts and organizations from several fields. In crises, a “temporary multi-organisation is deployed, which brings difficulties of coordination and shared management of the situation(s). Up to now, much more is known on what happens within the same organisation under stress, than n what happens when multiple organisations need to coordinate in unison to make the most of their capacity in a highly stressful environment.

A dense network of interactions – formal and informal – emerges during a crisis, involving both institutional and non-institutional responders in information sharing, collaborative task performance, etc. The topology of the network (i.e. the structural patterns of relations) of responders has a significant impact on how actors actually behave.

Once we understand the actual topology of the emergency management network, we can formulate suitable strategies to make it more effective.

Network topology and emergency management

The patterns of interactions effect different processes at the basis of the network performance in case of crisis, i.e. knowledge transfer, information sharing, collaborative actions, etc. One of the main characteristics is the density of the social ties: the more social ties, the more possibilities for collective action, for collaboration and for the developing a common understanding (Shared Situational Awareness). The degree of cohesion of a network describes to what extent the network “hangs together” instead of separating it into separate sub-groups. The existence of sub-groups can pose challenges for joint action. Yet, only a few subgroups with relatively strong ties between them can ensure that the network is managed, in a ‘ polycentric’ way. This kind of network can facilitate bridges between disparate views and help formulate a shared understanding and framing of the problem, leading to a sounder management strategy.

Network analysis in L’Aquila, Italy

We interviewed key responders in order to map the interactions among the different responders during the 2009 earthquake emergency. When we analysed the map we noted the crucial role of the local emergency management team in facilitating the information sharing process.

Map of interaction of responders in L´Aquila earthquake, 2009

Network analysis in Lorca, Spain

We also mapped the interaction network of both institutional and non-institutional responders in Lorca, Spain in the San Venceslao flood episode of 2012. The map highlights the crucial role played by community leaders. Suggestions were made how better to integrate community members in information sharing.

Map of responders in Lorca, in the San Venceslao flood episode, 2012

Coordination, communication and decision-making

How can we make coordination among the different responders more effective, when a fast and efficient response is required? Different barriers can hamper the coordination and communication among different responders, i.e. lack of cross-sectors structures, lack of common goals, lack of common concepts, lack of distribution of information, lack of trust, competitive practices and lack of situational awareness. Most of the efforts carried out for enhancing coordination effectiveness were meant to innovate the information technology for internal and external communication, information production and sharing, task information and allocation, coordinated decision-making process and analytical tools.

Evidences show that effective coordination support system should account for the cultural diversities among the responders, which affect the way actors search and interpret the situational information, and interact with others.

The Greek origin of the word ‘crisis’ entails the concept of judgment, implying the crucial capacity to make sense and disentangle the clues of a rapidly evolving situation.

The core activity of taking decisions and implementing actions in a complex and highly dynamic environment, such as the emergency management, now often exceeds the ability of a single centralized entity to cope. No single entity has complete control of these multi-scale, distributed, highly interactive networks, or the ability to evaluate, monitor and manage these emergencies in real time. Nowadays the response to crises becomes an emerging, socio-technical system of individuals, groups, organizations and jurisdictions that need to coordinate their actions for delivering effective operations. In crises, a “temporary multi-organisation” needs to be deployed, implying several difficulties of coordination and shared management of the situation(s).

Up to now, much more research has been carried out with respect to what happens within the same organisation under stress, while knowledge on what happens when multiple organisations need to coordinate in unison to make the best of their capacity in a highly stressful environment is still limited. That is, lack of cross-sectoral structures, lack of common goals, lack of common concepts, lack of distribution of information, lack of trust, competitive practices and lack of situational awareness. Among those factors, the capabilities of organizations to overcome the fractured nature of information in distributed system, where the state of the system itself can be perceived indirectly, through an effective information exchange by collaborative agents is considered crucial (Sorensen & Stanton, 2013).

Most of the efforts carried out for enhancing coordination effectiveness were meant to innovate the information technology for internal and external communication, information production and sharing, task information and allocation, coordinated decision-making process and analytical tools. Among the different available information systems, Operational Picture (OP) has gained the interest of different researchers and practitioners. This is because these systems facilitate the access to real-time, spatio-temporal information on the evolution of the emergency and matching responses, in other words, situational information. An OP aims at supporting Situational Awareness (SA) of the different actors involved in the emergency management operations. SA is a key concept in emergency management and in the whole cycle of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), being related to the fast reconnaissance of the extent of affected areas and the potential number of victims, the damage magnitude and the consequent needs that may be expected. Further, this picture of damage and needs as well as the unravelling of the disaster situation itself will change with time, also in direct connection with the dynamics of the surrounding environment and the effect of actions. Shared situational awareness (SSA) is further defined as the degree to which different actors involved in the disaster response activities are characterized by a shared understanding of the subset of information that is necessary to achieve their goals. An OP provides data and information feeding evidences about what is happening, who is intervening and where things are happening. Common Operational Pictures (COP) are further development of the OP systems, enabling all actors involved in the emergency response to achieve and share situational information in a geographically distributed environments.

Examples of COP systems

Several COP systems are currently available for supporting emergency responders. The below are just few examples of information management systems aiming at creating a broad situational awareness by combining Geographic Information System (GIS) data with changing, real-time event data through the integration of different information sources, and supporting coordinated control and communication:

Disaster Management Information System (DMIS),

SAHANA, the NC4’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) software solution E Team, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) COP system,

The COBRA Emergency Management Information System platform,

Rhe ArcGIS for Emergency Management solution,



IBM Intelligent Operations Center for Emergency Management

Traditional approaches to COP development, conceived as systems for collecting and representing information, are now considered indequate for enabling the development of a common understanding of the emergency situatio. These systems seem to be oriented exclusively towards emergence management teams, neglecting the role of the community, as key (potential) responders to the emergency. Moreover, these systems ignore that, even if common collaboration tools are available, actors do not share their information and knowledge without trust. These systems neglect the differences in terms of goals and actions among the actors involved in a response to the emergency. The same information might not be relevant for every actor. Exposing all individuals to the same information in the same way might affect the team’s ability to generate novel ideas and interpretations.

Moreover, existing COP systems ignore how cultural diversities, with specific reference to organizational culture, influence the way different actors perceive the topology of their own interactional network, and, consequently, their strategies to collect useful information. Empirical evidence demonstrates how some actors assume a strongly hierarchical structure of the information exchange process. That is, they will exclusively trust information flowing from the vertex through different intermediary levels. Other actors consider the multi-central structure as the most effective structure in allowing the rapid exchange of information within each level of the organizational structure and between different levels. That is, actors tend to adjust their interpretations in ways that consider the information their “network neighbors” provide. Neglecting these differences could lead to the development of ineffective COP for emergency management, because the actors will not recognize the network through which they collect the information as trustable.

Information management and sharing procedures within a responding organization and/or among different organizations might be jeopardized by the need to alter the organizational structure and roles, procedures and use of information in order to meet the demands of an exceptional event, such as an emergency situation. Moreover, the dynamic and complex nature of crisis situations does not allow for a static framework of the crisis responses. Interaction networks change dramatically during an emergency. Some actors may assume the role of informal leaders, whereas the official responders could be characterized by a low level of trust. The existing COP systems and the institutional protocols for information management in case of emergency seem to be incapable to adapt themselves to this changing interactional situation.

Although emergency management agencies put great efforts on building complex information system architectures, these evidences challenge the understanding of the COP as a technological mean aiming at reducing information incompleteness by making information better and more widely accessible. Enhancing the capability to capture information using different, even innovative, sources (e.g. Internet-of-things, smartphone, smart city cameras and stoplights, etc.) and put it in a shared system where it can easily be accessed represents a partial solution for supporting emergency management. The implementation of communication technologies has failed in many a situation because of the oversimplification of social processes.

Last but not least, current COPs have been often developed to deal with specific types of emergencies, which makes it difficult to adapt them to different types of crises, particularly when the spatial and temporal features of the latter are taken into consideration. What is urgently needed is a novel environment in which current applications and systems may be intelligently retrieved and adapted to respond to different types of scenarios, making interoperability a key condition rather than an afterthought arrangement that often does not fulfil the expectations and the real needs of people acting on the ground.

The evidences previously mentioned, the increasing awareness of the complexity of the emergency responses situations allow us to affirm that enabling the process for SSA development for coordination and decision-making requires a shift from innovating information production and management technologies towards enhancing the interaction processes among the different actors in emergency management. Interaction represents the mechanism allowing the different actors to interpret their environment, to achieve a satisfactory shared understanding of the situation, and to cope with the organizational and individual improvisation needed to deal with extreme events. Moreover, interactions allow to mitigate the conflicting interpretation of information about emergency due to differences in knowledge belief, customs and assumptions. Stressing the role of interactions in emergency management puts knowledge co-production, sharing and regeneration at the core of the SSA development and coordinated emergency management. Knowledge and interaction are strongly intertwined. Knowledge is distributed in social systems and is continuously processed and regenerated via interactions between teams and among members of the same team with different background.

COP systems for Situational Awareness should allow the different actors to create a common ground for communication and interaction, based on insights contributed by different members of the team with different background and disciplinary perspectives. SSA should be conceived as the results of a collective intelligence process. Therefore, an effective COP should be defined as a tool capable to enhance connection/interaction among the different responding organizations and communities so that – collectively – they act more intelligently than individuals or groups in case of emergency. The basic assumption is that the capability of a collectivity of actors to perform some tasks is a property of the group itself, not just of the individuals in it. That is, collective intelligence seems to go above and beyond what can be explained by knowing the abilities of the individual group members, and it notably depends on the way group members interacts.

An innovative COP systems for effective coordinated emergency management are conceived as a human-computer environment, designed in such a way that the collective processes characterizing intelligent systems – sensing, sense-making and decision-making – would be more or less automatically structured to be optimal for emergency management tasks. This approach looks at group sensing as a process activated through the development of a shared system that individuals in a team use to collectively encode, store and retrieve information or knowledge in different domains. Finally, this approach conceptualizes the effectiveness of collective decision-making processes as a property associated with eliciting the relevant information and combining it appropriately in order to take the right collective actions. For an SSA to be effective, two-way relationships between sensing/sensemaking/decision-making have to be supported. Sensing, through sense-making processes, provides information that feeds decision-making. Conversely, decision-making often stimulate the surprises and confusion that create occasions for sensemaking and, thus, innovation in sensing the environment.

The three main phases of the collective intelligence process.

In order to enhance coordination and communication for improved decision-making in emergency, three interrelated layers of innovation need to be implemented.

The first layer of innovation concerns the collective sensing. The current commonly adopted perspective of COP as a platform for collecting and storing “institutional” information about the emergency situation, making it accessible for the different decision actors, need to be overcame. Tools to integrate “official” and “unofficial”, as well as “private” and “public” sources of data, into a common pool, adopting the entitlement approach to manage access and an open semantic framework to promote data interoperability are needed. This applies to past experiences and current trends as well as emergency and recovery situations, to build a collective territorial awareness capability, similarly to what is currently done by the well-known Ushahidi platform for crowd-mapping emergency data. These tools should support the creation of a shared system for encoding, storing and retrieving knowledge (group memory). Narrative approaches as a way to manage knowledge co-production process become important. According to this approach, organizations are perceived as storytelling systems. Narratives organize individual thoughts and, thus, help people to comprehend and communicate their experiences.

The second layer of innovation concerns the collective sensemaking, which is particularly critical in dynamic and turbulent contexts, such an emergency management situation, where the need to create and maintain coherent understandings that sustain relationships and enable collective action is crucial. The process of sensemaking is a social process, aiming to selectively focus on certain stimuli and responses (attentional selection), and to generate a shared understanding for coordinated action. This requires a perspective in which the negotiation of meaning of information embedded in emergency management and situational awareness creation become visible. The innovative COP system should be capable to unravel the impacts of differences in institutional and cultural backgrounds and to consider those diversities as a factors enabling/facilitating the collective sensemaking. Nevertheless, cognitive diversity is not always a virtue when it comes to collective cognitive processes. On the one hand, evidence suggests that cognitive heterogeneity (“two minds are better than one”) is useful in mitigating against the cognitive biases associated with collective sensemaking (e.g. confirmation biases). On the other hand, different background knowledge and belief can represent a barrier to collective cognitive processes. To handle diversities in sensemaking process, a collective sensemaking system should be capable to address the two main dimensions describing the process of organizational sensemaking, i.e. animation and control. Animation is a powerful element that brings diverse understandings of an issue into discussion, but it is most likely to result in consistent actions when the sensemaking process is also relatively controlled.

Through animation and control, sensemaking system could be designed as a virtual trading zone, in which the different interpretations and narratives about the emergency are co-created and negotiated. Collective sensemaking is subject to conflict between the participating stakeholders (because of equivocality). That is why crisis management has to invest in situations and moments in which the stakeholders can come together to negotiate the relevance and meaning of information shared through the COP.

In order to enhance the effectiveness of the coordinated emergency management, systems need to be developed capable to support the collective decision-making and action implementation. That is, systems go beyond the idea of coordinated actions. Emergency management requires institutional and non-institutional decision-actors to collectively develop actions in response to damages and needs of affected communities. Innovative decision-making framework that goes beyond the limits of collaborative framework for emergency management. Collaborative work in group decisions and negotiations requires actors to have enough information about the others’ preferences. Evidences demonstrate that the complexity and dynamic nature of the emergency management decision environment makes it hard to access to such information. The aim here is to create the conditions under which different actors are going to cooperate for reasons going beyond their institutional obligation to do so. For this purpose, effective cooperation needs to expand existing methodology and technology in order to include the whole process: scanning, communication and information sharing, collective problem structuring and definition, dynamics of the problem situation, generation of alternatives and options, socio-emotional interaction etc.

Key actors and key vulnerabilities

The analysis of the interaction ties in the network allows comprehending the actual role of the different actors in the network. That is, besides the institutional roles described in the protocols of intervention, the actors could impact the effectiveness of the network performance. The complexity of the surrounding network, both in-coming and out-going, allow us to identify the most central actors in the network, that is, those actors who are capable to collect information from different areas of the network. These actors are “in the know”. Crucial for the network performance is the “information hub” , that is, actors that can act as interface in the information sharing process, moving information from one part of the network to the others. Similarly, the network analysis brings out the most important information in the network. That is, information whose availability is crucial for performing most of the tasks in emergency management.

Network analysis allows us to detect the main aspects of vulnerability in the network: those elements that could lead to failures of the network, lower performance, reduced adaptability, reduced information gathering, etc. Network management strategies need to be implemented in order to reduce these.

Policy suggestions

The map of the interactions allow to better comprehend the actual role played by the different actors in supporting the emergency management. That is, besides their institutional roles, the different actors could enhance/reduce the effectiveness of the emergency management by enabling/hampering the interaction and the flow of information during the different phases of the emergency management.

The map of the network could be used to analyse and unravel the complexity of interactions, allowing to identify the key elements in the network and the main vulnerabilities. To this aim, graph theory measures are implemented. The description of the different measures implemented in order to analyse the network of interaction are described in a different section of the handbook.

The results of this analysis can be used to support the development of strategies aiming at improving the emergency management through the enhancement of the network performance. Two different groups of actions can be implemented to this aim:

  • actions putting the key elements at the core of emergency management protocols, e.g. enhancing the sharing of key information, emphasizing the role of key actors, etc.
  • actions reducing key elements of vulnerability, e.g. increasing the speed of information by increasing the capabilities of the central agents to have access to crucial information.

For sake of clarity, the following sections describe how the network analysis was used to support the definition of actions for improving the emergency management in the Lorca case study.

The network analysis and the dialogue with the decision actors

A series of workshops were organized in order to discuss the results of the analysis with both the institutional actors and the community leaders of the L’Aquila case study. The aim of this phase was twofold: we intended validating the results of the analysis. To this purpose, we tried to compare the results of the network analysis with the personal experiences. And, to identify potential strategies to improve the emergency protocol together with the actors, accounting for the results of the analysis carried out in this work.

For what concerns the validation of the results, the key elements and the key vulnerabilities were discussed with the already involved institutional and non-institutional actors. Referring to the key elements, participants agreed with the obtained results, and seemed aware of the centrality of the community leaders. Moreover, the institutional actors found it useful that the adopted methodology can provide detailed information about the role played by each actor in the network of interaction. Specifically, the institutional emergency managers were interested in learning more about the meaning of some graph measures, directly connected with the information sharing process. These measures were used as a basis for starting debating about potential improvements of the emergency management procedure.

Participants were also interested in learning more about the key vulnerabilities of the network. At the beginning of the process, they were aware that improvements in the protocol of interactions were needed. Nevertheless, they were focusing exclusively on the interaction among the institutional actors. The analysis increased their awareness about the role played by the informal interactions taking place within the institutional system and between institutional actors and the members of the community. Using the results of the key vulnerabilities analysis, participants started discussing about suitable strategies to improve the flood emergency management plan, accounting for the complexity of interactions. Specifically, the discussion initially focused on the role of the media. Most of the institutional actors agreed that enabling a more effective bi-directional communication with the community members through the social media would be beneficial for sharing emergency information. The institutional actors were interested in enhancing the capability of the current media channels to collect, store and analyse the feedbacks from the community. Local community members thought it important to be able to help monitoring how an emergency evolves.

In order to enhance the preparedness for flood emergency management, the need to improve the cooperation between institutional actors and the local community was considered crucial. The analyses performed allowed to identify the ‘key’ agents within the network, identifying the most crucial ones in terms of relationships with the others and capability to move information. According to the results of the discussion, this activity could improve the capability of local population to react in case of emergency in cooperation with the official responders. To this aim, suggestions were made to train the community leaders as “agents of change”.

Therefore, the first and most important positive result of the implemented methodology was that institutional actors were more aware about the need to shift the focus from investing economic and human resources in developing innovative emergency information collection tools, toward enhancing the capability of the different actors to cooperate in case of emergency.

Interpreting complexity and ambiguity in relation to the emergency management

The analysis of the results allowed us to demonstrate that the oversimplification of the interactional structure at the basis of the development of formal protocols of intervention, characterized by a strongly hierarchical and inflexible structure, represented a barrier to the enabling of an actual collaborative emergency management process involving the different actors. This was mainly because of its incapability to account for the actual role played by the different actors and for the resources required for supporting the cooperation among them. The official protocol described only a small part of the complex network, that is, the institutional and formal interactions. The collected knowledge demonstrated that, during an emergency, informal interactions were activated even among institutional actors, based on personal and already established relationships. Moreover, the set of information exchanged within this informal networks is often broader than the one defined by the official protocols of information exchange.

The methodology allowed us to map the complexity of the interactions and, through the selection of a set of graph theory measures, to better comprehend the interaction mechanisms influencing the effectiveness of the cooperative emergency response. That is: what information needs to be shared, what task needs to be cooperatively implemented. Moreover, the analysis allowed to us to define the actual role played by each actor, according to the information they bring in the network, and their role in performing the emergency management tasks. The results of the analysis were used by the local stakeholders to inform the debate and to identify potential improvements of the protocol of intervention and cooperation.

The methodology accounted for the differences in organizational culture and to analyse how those differences could lead to different management of emergency information. On the one hand, some institutional actors – e.g. the Murcia emergency management – considered the multi-central structure as the most effective structure in allowing the rapid exchange of information within each level of the organizational structure and between different levels. These actors seemed capable to adapt their information collection strategy to the different conditions, showing resilience to failures of the official protocols of information sharing. Institutional actors with a dense network of interactions – i.e. the Murcia emergency management – seemed to be able to shift from the formal to the informal network in order to gather the needed information. On the other hand, the official responders – e.g. the UME and the fire brigades – assumed a strongly hierarchical structure of the information exchange process. These actors trusted exclusively information flowing from the top through intermediary, and easily recognizable, levels. This is because they needed to reduce the “noise” in information collection. Neglecting these differences could lead to the development of ineffective strategies for information sharing for emergency management. Integrating the Murcia emergency management in a hierarchically structured network could negatively affect its role as response coordinator. Contrarily, increasing the number of information centres in the responders’ networks could lead to the paralysis of their activities. The experiences carried out in Lorca suggested that developing effective emergency management strategies requires a clear understating of the differences among agents’ understanding of the interaction network.

Finally, the adopted methodology allowed us to emphasize the role of the community in the emergency management phases, and to make the institutional actors aware of the need to account for the community members’ understanding of the emergency situation. Specifically, the analysis of the community’s FCM and the related network allowed us to better comprehend the reasons of the low level of trust toward the institutional information. The community’s network has a strong multi-centre structure, allowing community’s members to select the more suitable information sources and activate informal networks of information sharing. This is mainly due to the limited comprehensibility of the information provided through the institutional channels. The analysis of the network allowed to define the central role played by the community leaders in facilitating the flow of information. They represent the actual information centres for the community. This result was considered as crucial for the definition of potential improvements of the emergency management. Community members, generally not mentioned in the official protocol of intervention, should be instead explicitly taken into account. Specifically, the community leaders could easily act as an interface between the institutional system and the local communities, supporting information sharing in emergency.