Disaster Management Expert Joins Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, January 28, 2013

Disaster Management Expert Joins Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley

Art Botterell is an experienced practitioner in the field of emergency information and public warning systems, with more than four decades of experience in government public safety and disaster response with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management System and Department of Defense as well as for state and local agencies and the United Nations Development Program. He conceived and led development of the international Common Alerting Protocol interoperability standard. Botterell was a member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s design panel for wireless emergency alerts and has served on a number of study panels for the National Academies of Science. He has also consulted on national-level disaster management systems in the U.S., Asia, Australia, Europe and the Caribbean.

Botterell recently joined Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley Campus as a full-time researcher and Associate Director of the Disaster Management Initiative (DMI). CMUSV sat down with him to learn more about his path to becoming a leader in the disaster management domain and the issues he hopes to tackle next.

CMUSV: What was your first experience with a disaster?

Art Botterell: My first disaster was a tornado in Falmouth, Kentucky in 1967. I was a thirteen-year old volunteer for the Red Cross and I saw people during what I later came to know as the “heroic” period of a disaster, right after impact. There was altruism, people helping people and it was all very genuine. I saw people behaving toward each other just as they ought to, and I fell in love with it. I've spent most of my life since chasing that feeling.

CMUSV: You have a background in journalism, radio and television. How did these early interests lead you to the field of disaster management?

AB: I started out in ham radio at the age of eleven, which led me into two directions that are actually fairly closely aligned: disaster work and broadcasting. They are related because ultimately, they had to do with first, using the radio, then other technologies to help people deal with sudden change. How do we deal with this accelerating rate of change and how is technology one of the causes but also one of the solutions? That’s really the core theme of almost everything I’ve done in my life.

CMUSV: You spent time in Singapore working with the Ministry of Home Affairs. How did that experience shape your future work in disaster management?

AB: In 2001, I picked up a contract for the Ministry of Home Affairs in Singapore. My job was to interview people in all of the ministries of government about public warning and emergency public information and design an integrated system to do that. It was very forward thinking. So I came back with the idea that we did not really have a good abstraction layer for integrating public warning systems. We did not have a warning “Internet.” The Singaporeans had the vision for having one integrated system. Singapore really crystallized my thinking on alerting and the experience led me to develop the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).

CMUSV: What is the Common Alerting Protocol?

AB: CAP is largely a data format for messages that are primarily about attention management. It doesn’t give you the full information on the disaster but tells you, for example: there’s a tornado. Hide. Like a siren, it gets you to pay attention. In and of itself that siren doesn’t tell you anything except that something is going on. It helps you become vigilant and hopefully pick up more information along the way. But the attention has to happen first.

CAP was the right project at the right time after 9/11. I wrote a paper on applying CAP to the federal Emergency Alert System in 2003 and this past year that actually happened. It has been a long process. In 2006, I became the manager of the public warning system for Contra Costa County, where I rebuilt the system using CAP. We got to issue more public warnings in a week than some do in their entire career, mainly because the scale of many warning systems doesn’t allow for narrow targeting of local alerts like missing kids. So we got to accumulate a lot of real-world experience and demonstrate that CAP works in the field with real laws and real lives at stake.

CMUSV: Apart from the Falmouth earthquake you mentioned earlier, what disaster has affected your life and career?

AB: The Oakland Hills fire in October of 1991 was significant because I was mature enough by that time in the business that I had a sense of the larger issues in disaster management. I saw how not being able to manage an evacuation effectively got people killed. I still have issues with that. The common assumption is that disaster management is about the management of scarcity. But in most situations, the problem is exactly the opposite: the challenge is the management of too many resources and too much information overrunning a management system that can’t scale up fast enough. That’s what happened in the Oakland Hills. It was the issue of scalability and that really changed how I think about a lot of these issues.

CMUSV: What theories on communication have shaped your view on disaster management?

AB: Alvin Toffler's book, Future Shock, had a huge impact on me when I read it in high school. I became persuaded that technologists could and should work to help people cope with technology’s effect on accelerating change in their lives. There was another book more recently, The Attention Economy, by Davenport and Beck. The insight that attention is a fungible good in its own right was a breakthrough for me. We tend to model communication processes in terms of information transfer but that's really an incomplete model of human communication. One of the things it leaves out is the business of attention management. For example, if you were looking out the window while I told you my story, the effect of my words might be very different because your attention was budgeted differently. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often folks forget that part when we design "information systems" that have humans in the loop.

CMUSV: What attracted you to Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley and the Disaster Management Initiative (DMI)?

AB: I became aware of the DMI and thought, much as Contra Costa was the laboratory to field test and prove CAP, that here was a good place to work on what I call the “valley of death” problem – the gap between research and theory and the in-field application. In the DMI, we have all of this cool science but the question is how do we transfer technology into practice? I hope that’s what I’m going to spend my next decade working on.

The setting is right because we take disasters seriously in California and the will is here, with Martin, the director of the DMI and of Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley, having a vision of focusing on disasters. Here’s a place where I can try to be a translator between the geeks, the boots on the ground and the bureaucracy. I'm also attracted to the academic world at this point in my career because here we have a bit more freedom to take the long-term view rather than one constrained by short-term business or political goals.

One of the things that I’m promoting in the DMI is open source software. There’s so much work that gets done here by students but it tends to evaporate when they walk out the door with diplomas. Emergency managers could use a lot of what students are doing if it were just made available. Open source seems to offer one path across that valley of death.

CMUSV: What kind of advancements would you like to see in the role of technology in disaster management?

AB: There are two large dynamics that I would like to see better appreciated and therefore better coped with. The first is the interface between informal and formal organizations in society. One of the characteristics of a disaster is that the boundary line between informal structures and formal structures moves quite suddenly. How do we manage the transition of roles back-and-forth between "official" response and the legitimate emergent response of the people on the scene?

The second tension is between the autonomous-agrarian and interdependent-industrial perspectives. The problem is that we often fail to appreciate that a dialogue between these two approaches is necessary. We tend to moralize the issue and act as if our way is inherently right and the other inherently wrong. We waste a lot of energy wagging fingers at each other regarding disaster management strategies and other things, rather than acknowledging that one paradigm, and thus, one set of solutions, doesn’t fit all situations. It would be nice if things were that simple, but they aren't.

On a more tangible level, one of the issues on my mind these days is "just-in-time training." We face so many hazards and our society and systems are so complex that it's unrealistic to expect anyone, no matter how bright or hardworking, to know everything they might ever need to know in an unexpected situation. A big question moving into the future is how people, individual citizens and official responders alike, can find and absorb what they need to know when they need to know it.

CMUSV: What other projects are you currently working on?

AB: Recently I wrapped up a project with the UNDP to establish a CAP-based warning system in a number of the Caribbean islands. I also just returned from Haiti, where I'm working with the UNDP and the Haitian Minisitry of the Interior to set up a national emergency call center. It's tempting to just think of this as 9-1-1, but the context is different and in a lot of cases it's more about facilitating self-help than just dispatching official responders.

Haiti also illustrates another one of the big issues in emergency management, which is the eternal tradeoff between efficiency and resilience. Here in the States, an unintended consequence of highly efficient strategies, like just-in-time inventories or flattened organizational structures, is that they're streamlined for routine operations but lack the "headroom," the spare resources to cope with unexpected variations. A lot of emergency preparedness is about finding ways to reintroduce some slack, to put a bit of fat back on the bone for a hard winter.

Haiti offers us vivid examples of a lot of the deep problems of disaster management in just the same way that disaster management offers vivid examples of problems that modern society faces every day on a less dramatic scale.