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Designing for Disasters by Amy Silvers

Hurricane SandyDisasters are a design problem. Here is another great talk you can hear at Big Design Conference 2014.  It is by Amy Silvers, who has unique experience from Hurricane Sandy. I think this is a talk that people will really enjoy at the conference. When a disaster strikes, fundamental needs must be met: food, water, shelter, medical care. A complex network of victims, first responders, government and nonprofit agencies, volunteers, and other participants develops to ensure that needs are met.

But there is another need that is nearly as essential: the need for information. This, too, involves a complex ecosystem of victims, helpers, and others Those who are hardest hit by the disaster want to know how they can find safety and warmth, and how they can begin to recover. Others simply want to know when life will return to normal.

Those providing assistance and restoring services also need information: where to go, what to fix, how to help. Information flows rapidly in a crisis, and increasingly, it flows from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Affected individuals and organizations use social media to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world, creating a flood tide of information that is difficult to navigate.

What You Will Learn

A disaster, then, whether it’s natural or human-made, is a massive information architecture problem. Information needs to be structured so that those who need it can find the right information at the right time, in a form that is usable in crisis conditions. The emerging field of crisis informatics is focused on making the information itself available, and there are inspiring efforts underway, including the work of organizations like Ushahidi and Crisis Commons. But simply aggregating information is not enough, and there is a real need for IAs and UX professionals to join the effort. Some of the key activities in crisis information management that require IA and UX skills are:

  • Understanding the crisis information ecosystem
  • Looking at how information needs evolve before, during, and after the crisis
  • Listening to users and understanding their situations and needs
  • Taking into account the different contexts in which information will be accessed
  • Helping to identify trustworthy and credible information sources

I’ll outline some general guidelines for designing information for a disaster and explore the ways in which information flows during a disaster. In this talk, I’ll draw on my experiences and those of my highly engaged, active community during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to discuss what IAs can contribute to the field of crisis informatics.

About Amy Silvers

Amy Silvers is an information architect and UX designer who currently works as a product designer at NASDAQ OMX. Over a career of more than 10 years, she has worked for a variety of organizations, for clients ranging from giant corporations to small nonprofits. She has spoken at EuroIA and the IA Summit. Her infrequently maintained blog is, and she tweets as @A_Silvers.

Amy holds a master’s in library and information science and is a former children’s book editor. She lives and works in the NYC area and is usually covered in cat hair.

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