Thursday, March 01, 2007

Disaster Management and Continuation of Service Using the Web

Storms on 27 February 2007 damaged 70 buildings on the Australian National University campus in Canberra. The campus was closed for the remainder of the week, with most lectures, tutorials and laboratory sessions cancelled. A positive note in this is that the ANU's Internet systems continued to function, so that staff and students could be kept up to date via email and the web.

ANU Medical School students had the Medonline system to keep them informed:
"MedOnline is the staff and student interface to the web based curriculum that the Medical School is delivering for the Medical Degree. This interface allows access to the Problem Based Learning cases that are being delivered each week. MedOnline also provides a wide range of other resources and tools that the staff and students will be utilizing in order to support their teaching and learning."
Other students had access to the web based discussion forums, course notes and digital audio of lectures. These were not intended for distance education, but to supplement face-to-face teaching. However, having that material online and available when the campus is closed allows the students to keep in touch and access materials.

This is something organisations need to think about. Apart from storm damage, staff might be unable to use their offices for an extended period in the event of an outbreak of Bird Flu. How much of the business of the organisation could keep functioning via the Internet, if staff could not go to the office (or assemble in groups anywhere)?

Unfortunately the information on the ACT government web site on storm damage is less easy to use. Two reports on damage to government schools and libraries are in the form of Ms Word and PDF documents. This makes the download much larger and slows the public's access to the information. These should have been provided as simple, small HTML web pages.

After the 2003 Canberra Firestorm I provided some advice on emergency web design to a conference in Canberra. One of my students did research and reported on how to assess the success of emergency sites. The results were published online and government officials invited to the talks.

Experts may argue over the detail on how to design emergency web sites. However, their duty of care to the citizens should not be in dispute. IT professionals and web designers, including those employed as contractors, have a professional and legal responsibility. It is not a valid defence to say that their bosses did not give approval or adequate resources. After the next major emergency, the adequacy of online systems will be examined. Professionals will have to explain in court any deaths, injuries or major economic loss they contributed to though inadequate web sites.

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