Chris Hagar

Dr. Hagar’s research focuses on information needs and information seeking in crises, disaster health information, and roles for librarians and information professionals in crisis preparedness and response. In 2012, she published Crisis Information Management: Communication and Technologies, a collection of perspectives from international professionals tackling issues of crisis preparedness, response, and recovery.

Photo of Chris HagarWe recently spoke with Chris to learn more about crisis informatics and some of the challenges and tools she may share with us at the IA Summit.

IAS: You coined the term “crisis informatics” a few years back. What is crisis informatics?

CH: Yes, the term was coined by me in 2006 at the ALISE conference in San Antonio. And I broadly define it as the interconnectedness of people, organizations, information and technology during crises and disasters. Crisis informatics examines the intersecting trajectories of social, technical and information perspectives during the full lifecycle of a crisis — crisis preparation, response, and recovery. It’s a growing field of inquiry that it requires integrative and collaborative efforts from many disciplines to achieve effective and efficient disaster preparedness and response.

One of the exciting things about this area is that it is not only of interest to a variety of practitioners, researchers, and academics in information science, knowledge management, and information systems, but also other fields such as government; state and local emergency management and planning; non-government organizations; risk management; communications; community and urban planners; public health; psychologists, sociologists, and more.

IAS: You recently wrote a short article about the thirst people have for information in times of crisis and the misinformation that can perpetuate as people look everywhere they can for more details and direction.

CH: Well, a crisis usually presents a very complex information environment and precipitates an increase in communication. I think this is one of the challenges at the moment because of the rise of social media and its increased use. You have information coming from informal channels, for example, “citizen-generated” content and also from the formal channels like government agencies, sharing the same platforms like Twitter to disseminate information.

One of the hot topics at the moment is around finding ways to verify information during times of crises and disasters. Information forensics is concerned in part with verifying information like this. In times of crisis there’s a lot of rumors. For example, during Hurricane Sandy there were many rumors — text-based and photographic — circulating on Twitter. FEMA’s rumor control initiative and the Twitter hashtag #FakeSandy were set up to fight the rumors and misinformation.

IAS: It sounds like some of these formal channels of information are using social media not only to share accurate information but also to try and control or debunk the rumors.

Yes, there are various tools being set up to do this. Like, #FakeSandy, the hashtag #mythbuster was used to address rumors and misinformation circulating on Twitter about the flooding in Queensland, Australia. Digital volunteers are increasingly being used by many organizations like the Red Cross Digital Operations Center. There are also a lot of open source tools and organizations involved in managing information during crises that I hope to mention in the talk.

IAS: What is a digital volunteer? What role do they play in the control of rumors?

CH: Digital volunteers don’t specifically focus on misinformation. They are primarily used to collect information. For example, if I signed up to be a volunteer with an organization during a crisis, I could be assigned to collect tweets by citizens who might be looking for water or other provisions and I can direct these tweets to a central source where they are aggregated and plotted on a map, using crowdsourcing and crowdmapping tools. Crowdmapping can be useful in times of crisis to help determine where the information needs are and how to address them.

IAS: What are you most interested in under the topic of crisis informatics?

CH: I’m most interested in information needs and information seeking, particularly the socio-cultural uses of technologies. Although I’m not particularly involved in designing systems, I am involved in identifying how people go about seeking information that would be useful to the design of systems. This rumor element is something I’ve been interested in for a while. I became interested in it when I did my work with the foot and mouth crisis in the UK and a group of farmers. Rumor and establishing credibility of information was an important issue then, before this recent interest with social media.

I recently came across an interesting report from Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon University that talked about how you may verify tweets and how to design a system to establish credibility of information. It was called, “Tweeting is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions”. How do you decide if a tweet is true or not? The report mentions a few metrics that could help lend credibility to the tweet like, bio of the user and if the tweet is a retweet.

Building a system that will help establish credibility to information found in social media is just one way to help improve disaster preparedness and response. There are other opportunities for information architects and user experience professionals to get involved that I hope to share.