“We are in an emergency situation and cannot meet with you”: Postscript to the Christchurch Earthquake

I recently posted about the Christchurch earthquake and the way in which Crisis Commons was able to help. Here’s an email exchange from someone in the crisis centre working on the government side with Tim McNamara who was doing a lot of the organising on the Crisis Commons side.  I recalled Tim telling me of some unhelpfulness from Government (though many agencies were very helpful and also keen to use the new resources that the community had managed to muster.) Interestingly as a generalisation, those further away in Wellington seem to have been more helpful, when you might imagine they would find themselves more weighed down by elaborate hierarchical structures of authority.

A week or so into the process Tim ended up going to Christchurch and wanted to talk to someone in the government’s central crisis centre because they had rung him complaining that non-official information was going up on the site he was running (http://eq.org.nz/) concerned that it might be mistaken for official information. Tim responded that he’d be happy to try to represent the information differently and asked how the crisis centre would prefer him to do it. At that point the person said she didn’t know and that she’d get back to him. As you might have guessed she never did. Then the following email exchange ensued.  At Tim’s request I’ve changed the name of those receiving and responding to emails from Tim.

On 8 March 2011 07:51, Tim McNamara wrote:

Morning PIM team,

I would be delighted to be able to come to discuss some of the issues that have arisen around http://eq.org.nz/.

It may be worthwhile to discuss:
– representing official sources
– showing your team how a report becomes public

I’ve discovered that the meeting I was told about between 1 around representing official sources actually never happened. I know representing official information properly is a big thorn. I would like to fix the problem. More importantly, I would like to understand your misgivings about the information that we’re providing. I think you’ll be quite reassured by the processes we have to prevent vandalism and misinformation being disseminated.

To be clear, the very large majority of our data is sourced from official channels, rather than via community reports. For example, most banks have their staff inside the system and the Ministry of Education is inputting data directly. Additionally, we are increasingly getting buy-in from central government agencies, LINZ staff are volunteering their own time to be moderators on the message queue.

I am receiving first-hand accounts of our system being very useful to a number of agencies providing direct assistance to those most affected. It would be great to be able to capitalise on this. An understanding of our system from CDEM is critical for the system to be valuable. As far as I know, http://eq.org.nz/ is the only system that doesn’t have a corporate logo on it. That is despite having roughly a dozen sizeable public and private sector agencies contributing to its success.

I want to make sure that the system is being most useful. If you have some time to discuss, please feel free to call 021 499 225.

Regards, Tim McNamara

On 8 March 2011 15:59, CDEM Web Team wrote:

Hi Tim

Thanks for your email and also thank you for putting the link to Canterbury Earthquake on your website. I’ve forwarded your email to the public information manager (PIM) so they can follow up with you.

Thanks, Dianne

On 8 March 2011 19:37, Tim McNamara wrote:

Thanks Dianne,

I’ll be inside the cordon tomorrow from 4pm. I’ve gotten a gig with Comfort for Christchurch making coffee for Police officers. I’m sure there’ll be a possibility for me to spend a few minutes discussing things.

On 9 March 2011 08:14, CDEM Web Team wrote:

Hi Tim

I’m not working at the EOC any longer as I’ve been seconded back to ECan. The EOC web team is flat out, as I’m sure you will appreciate, and this is an issue that you need to take up with either the PIM or perhaps John Hamilton/Peter Wood if you already started a discussion with them previously. Please contact them if you wish to discuss further.

This is obviously a very busy time and our work is focussed on delivering the best service and assistance to Christchurch residents that we can, and at this point other websites are a low priority, unless directed by the CDEM group/controller. It may be that the link to Canterbury Earthquake website will have to suffice for the moment.

Cheers, Dianne

From: Tim McNamara, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 8:47 am
To: CDEM Web Team
Cc: CDPublicInformation
Subject: Re: http://eq.org.nz – chance to catch up?

Hi Dianne,

Thanks for your email.

I think the second paragraph is key. We have had over 120,000 visitors to our site. This may mean the EQRC web team isn’t providing “the best service and assistance to Christchurch residents” as it can. If it were, we wouldn’t have any where near these numbers.

I’m really disappointed with the dismissive approach your team has been taking towards us. Your site has been hurt significantly with loading issues. Your staff are overworked. Your information is hard to find. ECan has been illegally using our data to enhance its own service for over a week. Collaboration is an opportunity to reduce all of those problems.

From talking to many Student Volunteer Army phone operators that have been receiving calls from the public, your site takes several minutes of searching to find the information that they need. It must be much harder for people that are inexperienced with looking through your information.

I’m really surprised at the level of interest that we have received, given that we have nothing like the level of publicity of the sites produced by the state sector. My interest with having a discussion is not really about our site. I would like to share the lessons that our team have learned about distributing information in a way that is accessible to the team.

Let’s be fair, WordPress is not a system that’s designed to provide emergency information. Ushahidi is. That’s why we are using it. However, there are ways to incorporate some of the advantages of our system within the articles that you’re currently producing.

I don’t have any financial or commercial interest in maintaining this map. To be honest, my participation in http://eq.org.nz has cost me significantly. I want to understand what your reservations are.

If there’s any possibility of being able to provide advice and feedback while I’m in Christchurch this week, I welcome it.

Tim McNamara

From: CDPublicInformation, 9 March 2011 11:24,

To: Tim McNamara

Dear Tim,

Thank you for your email this morning and the points you have raised. At this stage because we are in an emergency response situation, we are unable to meet with you.


Mark for
Public Information Management Team

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Craig Thomler
Craig Thomler
13 years ago

This is not an atypical situation for public agencies. When in a crisis situation most struggle to deliver services at their regular staff levels and there is not much flexibility to adjust resourcing to need, given the level of approvals required and the processes that must be followed for governance and transparency reasons.

Allowing the support of citizen groups, or proactively eliciting their help has not been a feature of government crisis management ‘play books’ and without a very senior sponsor or established procedures it is very hard for agencies to adopt the necessary strategies to support this model.

Fortunately the Qld government understood the effectiveness of supporting, or at least staying out of the way of, citizen groups.

I expect to see governments substantially rewriting their emergency and crisis management plans over the next five years, however some agencies, right now, still remain opposed to citizen involvement and focused on how their agencies ‘do’ to citizens rather than how to facilitate citizens ‘doing’ for themselves.

John B
John B
13 years ago

Agreed, Craig.

For an example, look at the growth of paid staff within the NSW Rural Fire Service over the period post-1994 for data. Their Headquarters Building houses hundreds of staff (yes, hundreds, all keenly writing memos to each other and reviewing that which has already been done elsewhere or writing procedures manuals for those who will have to do things elsewhere. Elsewhere? Yes, because the Head Office is nowhere near the nearest rural fire risk.

This is also an example of the inability of bureaucrats to manage at a distance… in this case, they must build and control their major workforce under their own roof, not too far from the middle of the city.

I have just spent 10 minutes searching the RFS web site trying to find the exact address of all of these happy public servants. Guess what? It is a well kept secret, not suitable for publication. They must be ashamed to own up to the fact that they have constructed their nest so far from the business of actually dealing with fires in the bush. Think: Lidcombe, think Homebush. It’s out that way somewhere.

Once the “professionals” get their clutches on that which was previously run locally, in this case by local government coordination of volunteers and with staff secondment and input from other agencies as appropriate (National Parks, Forestry, etc), the rot has set in.

The end result is that the volunteers are no longer able to get inside the building as those who are paid to do, ignore those who can.

Each one of the several thousand salaried staff, with their pretty uniforms, comfy offices, selected private-use cars and so forth represents a drain on resources which would otherwise be directed to equipment and training.

Half the time they, too, are “in an emergency situation and cannot meet with…”.

It’s time to tear down the castle of many organisations, not just the one which is the subject of Nicholas’s article.

Crig Thomler
Crig Thomler
13 years ago

Well, maybe not that well hidden a secret.