From response to preparedness : examining the structuring of information and communication technologies in emergent disaster response networks

Porter, Amanda Jean
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Scholarly research and the popular press have long touted the potential of technology to transform the way we live, work, and play. One important dimension of technology is the enhanced potential for connection between individuals and organizations via new information and communication technologies (ICTs). From this perspective, in times of urgent need, ICTs should promote quick and easy ties between organizations responding to disaster. However, despite the promises of ICTs for coordination and connectivity, little research has examined the actual processes of ICT use for coordination in disaster response. This research project explores the constraining and enabling aspects of information and communication technology use within an emergent disaster response network. Additionally, this study examines how the structuring process of the network in the response phase impacts the design of ICTs within the network in the preparation phase. The data for this study was drawn from twenty one in-depth interviews with individuals of an emergent disaster response network that have experienced ICT use in responding to Hurricane Katrina. The key findings of this study highlight the way in which ICT use structures the relationships between network members at different phases of the response. Three phases were identified from the data, each with its own unique clustering of network member activities surrounding ICT use: the immediate phase, the stabilization phase, and the preparation phase. First, in the immediate phase, the initial appropriation and use of technology was influenced heavily by contextual factors such as urgency and the lack of identifiable leadership. Members draw heavily on their own organizations and informal networks for resources which structures the communication and coordination within the network so as to establish communication boundaries between different groups. Over time, all network members tend towards stabilizing the systems and procedures they use to communicate and manage information. Network members focus on modifying or incorporating new ICTs to improve coordination to sustain a long term response. Issues of balancing access with control and formalization with usability characterize the relationship between ICT use, organizational structures, and coordination in this phase. Finally, unlike most emergent groups, this one endures beyond the response phase. Network members largely agree to a formal structure, however, members use this formal structure to different ends. Seemingly conflicting orientations to disaster response are connected to structuring processes that occurred in the response phases. The practical and theoretical implications of these findings are discussed.