EVENT SUMMARY: Liability and Reliability of Crowdsourced Information for Disaster Management

Chief Werner
Chief Charles L. Werner of the Charlottesville Virginia Fire Department

On August 30th, 2011, the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in partnership with the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation (NAPSG), hosted a panel discussion entitled Liability and Reliability of Crowdsourced and Volunteered Information for Disaster Management  Moderated by Rand Napoli, the Vice-Chairman of the NAPSG board of directors, the discussion focused on the issues of liability, or accuracy, and reliability, or authority, of crowdsourced and volunteered information.  Recent events worldwide, such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, have showcased the power of these types of information to enhance situational awareness of emergency responders.  Despite its potential, barriers remain to its acceptance as a validd source of information in a crisis, chiefly liability and reliability.  The panelists (stakeholders, responders, and legal experts) offered their expertise on the topic. This discussion signals a future where citizen responders can support efficient coordinated lifesaving efforts.

The first panelist was Chief Charles L. Werner of the Charlottesville Virginia Fire Department.  With 37 years on the job as a first responder, and numerous awards and leadership roles among the public safety community, Chief Werner is an renowned leader with a powerful grasp on both policy and practical concerns.  He spoke of how technology and connectivity has created a world where everyday citizens can potentially offer situational awareness to first responders not yet on the scene.  When emergency services are stretched thin, a vetted and trained citizen could enable better allocation of resources, saving lives.  To that end, Chief Werner believes social media companies must create a common standard interoperable across platforms.  For citizens to effectively respond, these companies must engage the public, combat misinformation, and collaborate with the emergency management community.

The second speaker was Captain Xenophon “Yo” Gikas of the Los Angeles Fire Department, a firefighter with 23 years of experience at multiple levels of emergency response.  Captain Gikas framed his comments around the enormous flows of information to be managed during a crisis.  His department receives over 2,000 calls a day, 100 to 1,100 of which will require a dispatched response.  Information from more sources can provide the necessary context on the request and better hone the response.  Captain Gikas discussed the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) as a way to work around the concerns around trusting received information.  CERT members are trained, identified, and vetted.  Social media, he cautioned, has the potential for misunderstanding to rapidly expand out of control, and CERT teams could enable qualified individuals to stop the flow of misinformation in a crisis.

We next heard from Jodi Cramer, Counsel for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  While the first two commentators focused their remarks on the role of first responders, Ms. Cramer discussed some of the legal issues at play.  If a citizen offers information about a crisis and is geotagged, they may fear being tracked by government entities.  There may be Fourth Amendment and privacy issues involved with citizen-generated information used for public safety purposes, such as how long to keep it, who can see it, and who owns it.  Ms. Cramer also touched on the risks of implicit endorsement if FEMA provides information relayed from a citizen source and others rely upon it.

Next there were comments from Deborah Shaddon, a career IT professional with over 20 years of experience, with the CrisisCommons group.  Ms. Shaddon represented the Volunteer Technical Community (VTC), and advocated that training and collaboration can enhance trust in the power of VTCs to help emergency responders save lives.  As she noted, it is not just crowd sourced data that can be incorrect and lead to an inefficient response.  Data that opens itself to collaboration in the public domain can be corrected and triangulated by the community.  Organizations like the Standby Taskforce can work to build relationships with responders, and become a trusted source for citizen-generated information in a crisis.

Our fifth speaker was Governor Jim Geringer, the Director of Policy at the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which focuses on educating business and government on using geospatial technology for place based decisions.  Through his experience, Governor Geringer detailed a shift in the challenges confronting effective emergency response.  The current problem is not lacking information, instead it is having too much and needing to sort the good from bad.  Technology and analytics relieves some of the burden to filter these data flows.  He encouraged confrontation of these challenges, both through development of better tools and more active engagement between public safety leaders and the community at large.

The sixth panelist was Edward S. Robson, Esq., an attorney with Robson & Robson, LLC.  In his practice, Mr. Robson has advised volunteer fire and ambulance organizations, and serves as a member on the Board of Directors of a suburban fire company.  He noted that there has yet to be a definitive legal doctrine on these issues, but the definitive issue as he sees it will be tort law.  That is, people harmed by bad information provided by a VTC suing for damages.  This implicates many questions.  What duty does the VTC owe to the public when relaying information?  If tort law implies a duty to act “reasonably,” what qualifies as reasonable in a crisis situation?  To what extent can they be held liable if something bad happens?  Mr. Robson cautioned that VTCs taking part in emergency response should be careful to consider these issues in advance and acknowledge both their strengths and limitations.  The more they step into the sphere of directing individuals during a crisis, the more they risk injury and liability.

Finally, we heard from Martin Vallentine, a Senior Portfolio Manager with USAA Insurance.  From the perspective of the insurance process after a disaster, Mr. Vallentine discussed the power of GIS to make response more precise.  Before a crisis takes place, the better and deeper data GIS can provide can more appropriately price out insurance rates, allowing rates to coincide with level of risk.  GIS can simplify otherwise complex situations, and make the data used in response and mitigation transparent.

This diverse group of leading practicioners facilitated an outstanding dialogue on the future of emergency response.  Crowdsourced information, social media, and geospatial technology are not catch all tools that eliminate the need for careful thought and planning in a crisis.  When used effectively, it can provide rich context and reinforce the actions required to enhance community safety and resiliency during a crisis.  Further scholarly and practitioner-led inquiry into these issues will enable its incorporation into how we respond to disasters at all levels.

View an archived webcast of this event here.

Learn more about the NAPSG Foundation here.

Contributor Zachary Bastian

Zachary Bastian is a third year student at George Washington University Law School.  Before joining the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, he worked in the United States Senate studying policy and supporting the work of personal and subcommittee offices.  His interests include disaster mitigation and recovery, and leveraging technology to support better government.

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