Humans and Information: Managing a herd of cats.

I was talking to a project manager the other day about our common struggle: information systems management. We argued the various pros and cons of software designed to organize teams and information (’cause we’re nerds). As our conversation progressed over issues of human error and information tagging, I got to thinking about the similarities of maintaining knowledge and maintaining groups.

Group dynamics and information sharing are inextricably linked in a number of ways. On top of that–or maybe because of that–maintaining groups and information systems takes a lot of the same resources and methodology. Here are some links between the two:

Link #1: Group relationships (i.e. ‘cohesion’) effect how information is shared.

Rupert Brown says in Group Processes (2000) that the more tightly bonded group members feel to one another, the more likely they are to share information–whether it’s useful or not. However, tightly cohesive groups tend to be more isolated from the environment so their information can become repetitive or outdated. On the other hand, loosely associated groups tend not to share all information with everyone, but the information they do have tends to be unique and up to date because of the members’ contact with non-group members. Therefore, managing the groups dynamics directly influences the play of information throughout the group.

Side note: On the flip side of the coin, we might be able to say that information directly influences group relationships. If young adult drama-dies have taught me anything, it’s that a rumor can make or break a friendship.

Link #2: More people effect group maintenance. More information effects system maintenance.

Network theory (and common sense) states that the more nodes a network has, the more complex the network is. Just think about how your family’s dynamics changed after your sister married that guy. Adding a node (brother-in-law) to Thanksgiving dinner changed the dynamic of the network (family). Moreover, larger networks with more complex arrangements require more resources in order to maintain them. For information systems, this might mean more people or more time spent on data entry. For groups, it might mean more time and energy spent on group-building activities, managing rumors, or resolving conflict, etc.

Side note: I suspect that the larger and more complex the network, the more inertia it develops which is why very large groups (like governments) take so long to respond to changes in the environment (like a world-wide economic downturn).

Link #3: Information systems management is necessarily human systems management.

Collaboration not only requires that we share information, but that we share information in a way we can all recognize, access, and manipulate. Each team member must be trained in a standardized method for handling group information. We all have to use the same file-naming system, the same date system, the same tags. Furthermore, as we alluded in Link 2: a) the more types of information there is to be handled, the more complex the system for managing it becomes and b) the more people handling the information, the more complex the system for managing it becomes. Information management is directly dependent on group management.

This link seems to be where project managers and emergency managers spend so much of their time. It seems like we’re all struggling to get everyone else to manage information correctly.

Link #4: The person who manages group life also tends to manage information flow. 

It’s easier to spot in small, informal groups, but in every group there is a gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is a person who manages access to benefits which they do not own. For instance, access to the boss, a spot on the agenda, or access to illicit information (like rumors or secrets which they may trade for more political capital).

I, personally, like to think of the gatekeeper as someone who manages the group’s Transactive Memory System (TMS) which is a fancy sociological term for knowing who knows what. Usually, the gatekeeper is well connected in the group and–especially if they’ve been there a long time–generally knows who knows what. They are a valuable resource for members as they can direct them to those members with the expertise or connections they need. Gatekeepers control information flow in the group in a very direct way.

Here’s where I go out on a theoretical limb. We’ve experienced often how information gets stymied during a crisis and a lot of research (including my own) is focused around how to open the channels of communication. What if part of the problem of information flow is that the gatekeeper gets overwhelmed by requests literally or figuratively? What if they don’t prioritize information correctly and let something important drop? What if they can’t help the group efficiently because there’s too much noise (i.e. the opposite of data) to process requests for information/expertise?

So the solution might be to decentralize gatekeeping duties across the whole group (or at least more members), but then you run into the increased maintenance cost of more people handling information.  Hmm….


There seems to be an intimate association between handling group members and handling information. They take a lot of the same resources and processes and the cost in terms of time and effort of maintaining each seemed to be linked. Each individual may have a limit to how much information they can process at one time, necessitating collaboration with other individuals. But collaboration is inherently more costly as networks increase in complexity. Therefore, managers must cleverly walk the delicate line between too little and too much information, between too few and too many team members.

So if you ever feel like the system should behave better than it is, keep in mind: you’re actually managing two related, yet unique systems. Problem in one might be symptoms of problems in the other.

When Coms are Down (who you gonna call?)

EMScholar exercises 

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

As a Communication’s major, I was never really that interested in communication technologies (except for Twitter. Those case studies are super cool). Then, one day, I married an IT guy. Over the years, I’ve picked up enough geek-speak that when I passed by some funky looking antenna, I was a) curious and b) able to appear somewhat competent to the person explaining them to me. Here’s what I learned (stay with me, it’s super interesting):

During the first day of the Cascadia Rising Exercise, 2016, the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) pretended that it had lost phones and internet. The SEOC floor was quiet and sluggish. People prepped paperwork, anticipating the flood of need when the phone lines came up. A few people were using cell phones and satellite phones to get information about the disaster from the counties (called “situational awareness” or sometimes “ground truth”).

Across the hall, the ham radio operators were hunched in close to their speakers trying to distinguish fuzzy connections. These volunteers are part of RACES (rhymes with trees), Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service which activates to help in an emergency. The “amateur” in their name is a reference to the FCC’s designation of the band of radio waves they use; NOT a reference to their skill level. These guys are pros.

If being without phones and internet is distressful normally, imagine being responsible for disaster response without any way to easily connect to your field teams. That’s why getting coms up is first priority for disaster managers. The military (and some civilian companies) have developed ultra-light gear that can be set up for immediate connection.

The Beachball or the “Gatr”

FEMA has brought an inflatable satellite in the shape of a 6 ft white ball. The “dish” itself is merely a reflective fabric on the inside of the ball while the skinny LNB arm juts out of the ball a few inches. The pressure of the air and the round shape of the ball keeps the dish in the correct parabolic shape while also keeping it at the right focusing distance (according to the manufacturer’s website). The whole thing fits in two to four storage-bin sized chests and can be working in about 6 hours. Most of that time is spent trying to manually find the satellite connection. The ball has to be tethered down in  8 spots to keep it from rocking or shifting in the wind. The manufacturer claims that the round shape actually makes it more stable in the wind. Still, one FEMA tech guy admits he far prefers the MERS or Mobile Emergency Response System because the satellites lock automatically. It was probably better before they switched satellite providers, he tells me. Even so, the beach ball can provide cheap high-bandwith to a mobile team fairly quickly and with very light equipment. Ideal for first responders. Theoretically, you could air drop it into impassable areas.

Fun fact: Gatr is the name of the company that sells them.

The Portable KU-band Satellite Dish: A bit larger and set up nearby is a portable ground-mounted satellite dish. It takes a bit longer to set up and fits in twice as many cases. But seems to serve a few more people.

MERS: Mobile Emergency Response System. An office on wheels

The MERS that the FEMA tech prefers is a small camper with a satellite dish on top. Inside is all the telecommunications equipment you might want: VOIP (internet phones), wifi, radios, and video/audio equipment. A tiny conference table in the middle seats 4 with more work spaces along the counter. The truck can provide 40 people in a building nearby with phone or internet or provide 10 people working in the truck with phones AND internet. The truck can be loaded onto a Boeing-137 or C-5 plane for transport into disaster areas. While it is more stable and a little more powerful, it also requires cleared roads. The military has a similar vehicle (see second left).

The MERS trucks can drive right onto a C-5 like this one and be dropped off near disaster areas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Miller)


Cell Trucks

A Sprint truck deploys in the Cascadia Rising Exercise. Many cell service providers routinely practice with disaster personnel.

Of the same size as the MERS are a variety of “cell on light trucks”. All the cell providers have mobile teams who deploy to disaster zones with these trucks in order to re-establish cell service while their permanent cell towers are being fixed. The truck deploys a 70 ft antenna and a satellite dish supported by a generator that can run for 1-2 weeks depending on how hot it is. The equipment inside the truck needs to be kept cool, so much of the generator fuel is used for that. The truck can support about 600 simultaneous users which is about the capability of a regular cell tower. Also, many of the the cell providers–according to Sprint–bring phones to the disaster area. They can pre-load contacts and provide them to field agents who can then use them to edit and share maps, communicate with search and rescue personnel, send and receive email, etc.

The best of the best is spelled JISCC. The Joint Incident Site Communications Capability.

The JISCC (rhymes with wisk) is run by the National Guard and represents the pinnacle of ability. It was the spidery JISCC antenna that I had spotted deployed on a strip of land and which piqued my curiosity. I felt especially honored and grateful to be given a guided tour of the whole operation (special thanks to a major who wishes to remain anonymous who gave me over an hour of his time). Unfortunately, I was only able to get photos of the outside of the JISCC. I will do my best to describe the inside.

The JISCC does everything. Twice. First, I was shown a tiny closet where a young airman hunched over a box with 6 inch screen in the lid and buttons and wires all inside it. That grainy picture, I was told, was the feed from the helicopter flying over the (pretend) disaster area. The National Guard command was working with the state to get visuals of different areas to guide search and rescue or assess damage. The JISCC was helping to collect that video. The helicopter camera was equipped with infrared so that we could use it at night.

Next, I was shown the main room where about 6 Guardsman (not including the lonely airman in the closet) worked on folding tables next to racks of equipment in a very cool room. In one corner was a chest high cabinet of radios. All kinds of radios: HF, VHF, UHF. The radios have cross-band repeaters for better range. Two guardsmen fiddled with dials trying to clear up the signal from the Puget Sound area. The radios can also talk to cell phones. Handy, I think. You can even send email over the radio, he tells me. I look dubiously at him. It sounds like a fax, he says, and on the other end, you have a computer which translates it into words again for you. This is one kind of interoperability that the National Guard strives for: communication between different kinds of technology.

On the wall to the left was a bank of routers for phones and computers. The JISCC brings light laptops and other equipment so you could conceivably talk to anyone on anything.

Outside, it’s 90 degrees; uncomfortably hot for us northwesterners. That’s one of the benefits of working in the JISCC, my guide says, laughing. The equipment has to stay cool, so you stay cool too. We walk over to a cordoned off area and he points out the antenna one by one.


Front: the antenna receives helicopter feed for the National Guard. Back right: the pole supports thin wires which collect HF radio waves.

The stico (named after it’s manufacturer) is an interoperable RF antenna. There’s also a VHF/UHF antenna, and a satellite dish which automatically finds the satellite. It’s point and shoot, he says. Just set it and go. The especially tall one with the funny spikes is the antenna receiving the helicopter feed. Next to it is a pole with wires attached to a tree and the ground. The wires are the antenna, he tells me, not the pole like you might think. It receives HF radio and this design makes it extremely light and packable.

A few steps away is the trailer and truck that all this goes on. It’s surprisingly small. In the field, the trailer can be set up with all the radio and router equipment from inside and air conditioned to keep it cool. I see a few fold-up chairs left in the truck. The whole thing can be loaded onto a C-130 and only needs a 6 person team. They’re currently thinking about ways the equipment can be air-dropped to affected areas. The only trouble is: if they drop it and wheels can’t get to it, then you’re stuck. And if wheels could get to it, why would you need to drop it?

My guide recalled how the National Guard JISCC team was called up last summer during the fires. The fireman had brought their own equipment to their base camp (an actual campground) but discovered that they were stuck in a valley. Their line-of -site satellite phones and radios didn’t work. They needed the National Guard’s communications support. They also found that having email and a fax machine on base was extremely helpful for organizing firefighter schedules and payment. 

“What’s the one thing you wish you could tell people.” I asked him. He paused squinting into the bright, unblemished sky. “We provide communication capability to people who are coming to help you,” he replied. 

As I walked back toward the cool, dark of the SEOC, I couldn’t help but be very grateful to the engineers, IT guys, and other geeky types who designed, ran, and maintained this equipment. From the individual volunteer HAM operators, to the portable satellites, the heavier MERS teams, and private cell trucks, to the wonderfully robust National Guard JISCC: all are important pieces to the response network. We couldn’t do it without them.