Hagar’s crisis informatics research informs COVID-19 challenges

Chris Hagar

"Crisis informatics," a term coined by iSchool alumna Chris Hagar (PhD '05) and Leysia Palen, professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is now a well-established area of study. Crisis informatics explores the interconnectedness of information, people, and technologies in crises and examines the intersecting trajectories of social, technical, and information dynamics during the full life cycle of a crisis. While Hagar first used the term in her PhD dissertation, which focused on the UK's foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2001, there are many similar information challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The FMD crisis unfolded as a series of information and communication problems, primarily from government to farmers, with consequences for action in a time of crisis," said Hagar. "As processes and procedures for dealing with infected animals, and biosecurity measures implemented by the government changed, farmers were living in conditions rife with uncertainty. As a means of coping with these conditions, farmers had to decide who and what information sources to trust, and from whom to seek information."

Hagar noted that the FMD outbreak was a crisis of isolation—places where farmers usually met to communicate and exchange information were shut down in order to control the spread of the disease. Many farmers were unable to leave their farms for weeks or months.

"With the current COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent isolation of individuals, families, and other groups of people, this study, although concerned with an animal disease, has particular and continuing significance," she said.

In addition, because there was much confusion and distrust during the FMD crisis, "rumor and gossip played an important role in the exchange and transfer of information about events and also in people's behaviour and activities."

Now an emerita professor in the School of Information at San Jose State University (SJSU) in San Jose, California, Hagar has taught crisis informatics courses at both SJSU and Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Her current course on crisis health informatics examines how information is generated, accessed, organized, coordinated, and disseminated during a crisis. It also explores the multiple roles information professionals and libraries can play in preparedness and response.

Hagar is impressed by how libraries have responded to the current pandemic, making the "extraordinary transition" to provide their services and collections within an entirely virtual environment.

"Libraries have responded to the challenge well by introducing new services (e.g., curbside pickup), expanding online services (e.g., public wi-fi), and adding virtual programs (e.g., virtual story hours)," she said.

Hagar serves on the board of directors of Standby Task Force, a global network of volunteers who assist first response agencies traveling to the site of a disaster. She is also an Affiliate of the Disaster and Development Network of Northumbria University in the UK, the first and leading international group to work in the disaster and development area.

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