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Designing for Networked Community


Article in Procedia Engineering May 2016

DOI: 10.1016/j.proeng.2016.08.057


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T. Comes
Delft University of Technology


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Procedia Engineering 00 (2016) 000000

Humanitarian Technology: Science, Systems and Global Impact 2016, HumTech2016, 7-9 June 2016,
Massachusetts, USA
Designing for networked community resilience
Tina Comesa*
Centre for Integrated Emergency Management, University of Agder, Grimstad, Norway


Communities have been described to be at the heart of the preparedness for and the response to disasters. The increasing
connectedness has made communities more vulnerable for their dependence on a complex network of critical infrastructures. At
the same time, this very connectedness has the potential to enable communities to self-organise, engage, and connect with other
communities to improve their resilience. While the pathway to more resilience is promising and has many advocates, the
response to crises and disasters, time and again reveals the challenges related to (i) ad-hoc switching from preparedness to
response; (ii) ad-hoc connecting professional responders, communities, volunteers, and local authorities; and (iii) designing
systems and tools that are tailored such that the feedback from local communities can be taken into account for coordination and
planning. Therefore, a paradigm shift is needed in designing crisis and disaster management information systems linking ad-hoc
response to longer-term planning, in which networks of communities are at the core of the process. This paper sets out to provide
a critical review on community-resilience literature. From there, it develops a research design principles for information systems
to improve community resilience.

2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Peer-review under responsibility of the Organizing Committee of HumTech2016

Keywords: Resilience; Information Systems; Coordination; Decision-Making; Design Principles; Disaster Response; Orchestration

1. Introduction

Finding systematic ways to improve resilience has been a concern for governments around the world. Despite the increasing
amount of resilience-related research, focus is mainly given to efforts of public authorities and professional responder
organizations [1]. Ubiquitous computing, Internet of Things, and crowdsourcing, however, facilitate real-time access to granular
information that enable citizens to interact with their environment in new ways. Expectations towards Big Data are high,
particularly when it comes to new forms of community engagement for disaster response [2]. But only by turning this deluge of
information into verified, processed, and actionable knowledge communities can be empowered to transform increasingly smart
or interconnected communities into a resilient society.

From a technology perspective, there are good reasons for optimism: fuelled by the increasing pace of technology development
and innovation, there is a wide range of tools to support sensemaking, collaboration and coordination for different types of crises
and disasters. Still, key challenges, particularly in the response to a disaster, remain collecting, analysing and providing
actionable information to the people who need it. Finding reliable and trusted data that is relevant to support efficient response
and coordination in emerging networks remains a challenge, particularly in in rapidly evolving situations [3]. Often, the filtering
selection of informative content is done manually [4]. Sensemaking, negotiation and coordination hence rely on the intuition and
expertise of individuals prone to cognitive and motivational biases [5], and there is a growing risk that citizens and experts
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +47-47 21 82 61
E-mail address:

1877-7058 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Peer-review under responsibility of the Organizing Committee of HumTech2016.
2 Author name / Procedia Engineering 00 (2016) 000000

remain in their pockets of information instead of collaborating [6].

One common pitfall is rushing to action before a situation is understood and then failing to revise assumptions as new
information is available [5]. As a result, important cues signalling emerging crises or systemic risks are discounted or ignored
[7]. Minute planning instead of embracing emergence, further complicates matters. The theory of threat rigidity implies that
mapping out a specific way to react to problems discourages organizations from understanding an event, and creating a tailored
response [8]. The use of information technology and the social or organizational structures for sensemaking, coordination and
planning are hence interdependent. Thus, it is imperative to design systems that take into account practices of local communities,
professional responders and decision-makers in industry and public sector.

Information systems and communication technology have been described as instrumental to the process of improving resilience
[9]. While there are many guidelines for communities, cities, or even countries to measure resilience [1012], there are so far no
specific requirements and design principles that guide the design and development of information systems to improve the
resilience across specific user groups and geographical boundaries. Such systems will aim to harness the power of the knowledge
society to support an integrated trans-disciplinary approach that engages and empowers communities within and across different
communities to improve their resilience.

Today, there are three major gaps in the resilient information systems that will be outlined in this paper: (i) temporality:
understanding requirements for resilience across the different phases of a disaster (preparedness, response, recovery); (ii)
plurality and polyvocality: understanding communities not as isolated and good-willed entities, but as interacting and emerging
social structures with specific interests and aims; and (iii) engagement: designing for governance and coordination structures that
enable communities to participate and engage. This paper provides a critical review on the underlying concepts of each of these
dimensions, and outlines a research agenda towards developing design principles for resilient information systems.

2. The Vision: Towards a Resilient Community Network

Resilience theories were established for individuals, families, cities, communities, industrial sectors and even for physics and
ecological systems [13]. The concept of community resilience describes the sustained ability of a community to take collective
actions, and to use available resources to self-organise, respond to, withstand, and recover from crises [14]. Norris and colleagues
state that community resilience emerges from four main capabilities; Economic Development, Social Capital, Information and
Communication, and Community Competence [15].

While most literature focuses on the ability of communities to use available resources to respond to shocks [1619], resilience
also entails that communities are able to adapt to trends as they emerge [20,21]. Both concepts, the ad-hoc agile response to
shocks and the long term planning and adaptation thus need to be integrated in the resilience domain and reflected in the
resilience information systems.

Such systems also have the capacity to connect communities. Much work has been done on community and urban resilience
[20,2224], but most approaches consider communities as isolated entities that do not interact with each other. Experience,
insights and practice of on-going developments on city resilience are thus not shared [18], and the much needed mutual learning
is hampered.

In recent responses to humanitarian crises, information sharing and online support have shown strong potential as lifeline for
local affected communities [25,26]. It is one of the main objectives of this research to investigate this potential to facilitate the
creation of a remote support network among communities, where affected communities can connect to communities in other
places with relevant technical competences and experiences. As such, the concept of community resilience will need to be
expanded beyond the ability of community members to take meaningful, deliberate, collective action to remedy the impact of a
problem [15] by establishing a network in which local and remote communities connect and collaborate in their response to
sudden crises and in longer term risk management and planning.

One common resilience framework is focused on 4 Es: Engagement, Education, Empowerment and Encouragement [11]. A
communitys capacity to gain trusted information through networked connections (engagement), to process and critically reflect
on that information (education and encouragement), and to rapidly respond to emerging problems (empowerment) is more
important for resilience than setting up detailed plans, which rarely foresee all contingencies [3,27]. New techniques using
crowdsourcing and citizen science have emerged that enable these processes among citizens. Indeed, concerned citizens have
initiated grass roots initiatives to address issues of energy, pollution, transportation, water management, or health care [28,29].
The digital humanitarians, a global network of online volunteers, have changed the nature of humanitarian response since the
2010 Haiti Earthquake. Overall, the past decade has witnessed a sustained growth in scope and scale of participation of people
from outside established organizations [30]. To bring this evolution to maturity, advances are needed in designing resilience in
large scale distributed systems.
Author name / Procedia Engineering 00 (2016) 000000 3

3. Temporality: the virtuous cycle of sensemaking, coordination and planning

To integrate short and long term considerations, a theoretical framework is proposed for designing resilience by bringing together
agile coordination and adaptive scenario-based planning.

In the response to a crisis, citizens, professional responders and decision-makers are confronted with stress and pressure,
distorted, lacking and uncertain information. Thus, they are working in conditions that are known to introduce or enforce biases
[31]. While networks of digital responders organized over the Internet have set out to improve judgments by providing better
information, without any structured support to determine objectives and preferences and detached from the context, remote
analysts may face the very distortions they are trying to help overcome. Therefore, it is important to focus on the role and nature
of information as enabler and driver of sensemaking, coordination and planning.

Sensemaking is dedicated to the interplay of action and interpretation rather than choices and evaluations of alternatives [32]. As
such, sensemaking provides a framework to structure chaotic streams of information into meaningful patterns that are the basis
for coordination and planning.

Earlier research has shown that coordination needs to be reflective on the type and nature of information, and implications for
users in an agile and emerging network [33]. Often, effective coordination is hampered by the difficulty to retrieve actionable
and timely information from unprocessed or badly-filtered data, and the reliability of information is difficult to assess. The well-
known platform Humanitarian Tracker, for instance, was able to verify only 5,000 out of 80,000 citizen reports about Syria [34].
As such, there is a clear need for real-time methods verifying and evaluating the quality and trustworthiness, relevance and
informativeness of data [3,2]. Messages need to be filtered or ranked in terms of criticality and reliability. What is critical,
however, depends on the role, responsibility, capacity, and (risk) preference of the person who receives information. While
automated filtering and distributed systems usually assume stable and standardized objectives and preferences in terms of
information relevance, in a crisis such processes need to take into account the emergence of the network: actors, organizational
mandates, aims and budgets or other constraints are constantly in motion.

The response to sudden onset shocks is typically considered independently from longer-term risk management, including
environmental and societal trends such as the climate change or migration. Shocks, however, can drive rapid changes in what is
considered important or valuable in a community, such as the Fukushima disaster that lead to Germany abandoning nuclear
power. In a context of such rapid regime shifts, long term forecasting and analyses become impossible. Probabilistic forecasting
techniques are efficient to support planning if all relevant variables and their interdependencies are known. In complex situations
the use of scenarios has been advocated [35], where scenarios are a facilitator of a continuous process of discovery, negotiation
and adaptation [3]. The lack of targeted sampling and search strategies to design relevant scenarios makes those approaches slow,
at times inefficient, and not suitable for the volatile situations driven by crises and sudden regime shifts.

In the volatile settings that provide the environment for response and planning in cities, sensemaking provides a structure for
identification and framing of problems, construction of preferences and design of alternatives. As such, the sensemaking process
is founded on a stream of generic and unfiltered data that needs to be structured, processed, and turned into meaningful and
actionable information to guide coordination [7]. Coordination and planning require specific granular information, and as such
they focus the process of data collection and measurement on concrete (micro-)questions. By doing so, they impact the
continuously on-going sensemaking process, providing a framing and adding to the narrative of expected events or paths. Key to
more efficient scenario design is hence a better understanding of the link between objectives and alternatives (in terms of what
people want to achieve, and what they are reasoning about), and sensemaking. There are few attempts to connect both fields via
scenario-based reasoning, including my own work [3638]. However, there is not yet a consistent theory that allows modelling
the adaptive and interdependent nature of coordination, planning and sensemaking.

4. Plurality and Polyvocality: Coordinating and connecting for different user groups and interests

The response to sudden-onset disasters in the past decades time and again reveals organisational, behavioural, and technological
shortcomings and poor coordination of efforts, which contribute to a loss of life, damage to property and the environment and
that, on the longer term, threaten sustainable growth. Although there is a plethora of technologies and tools available, failures of
communication, interoperability and coordination persist. The causes for frictions, obstacles, or plain debacles are often political
or cultural and not 'fixable' merely by developing new technologies. Technologies, their deployment and use as well as the
context and social structures in which they are used are interdependent. It is therefore imperative to develop a human-centred
technology approach that can cope with the complexity and uncertainty of a crisis environment, and take into account the actual
real world practices of affected populations and responders [39]

In various studies on crisis mapping several authors have shown that the level of participation of communities was influenced by
various socio-technical factors [40,41]. In particular, it was found that resilience preparedness, in the form of training to use
platforms such as Ushahidi or OpenStreetMap, would have significantly improved their appropriation of the technology [42].
Additionally, the findings suggest that technologies are mainly used by the literate middle class, and that the tools increased the
4 Author name / Procedia Engineering 00 (2016) 000000

risk of false expectations and loss of trust, when the message requests for shelter and medicine are left unanswered.

Failing to involve communities in the design of crisis mapping and management platforms reduces their awareness and adoption
of such tools in times of real crises [43]. This would also decrease the number of identified socio-technical requirements, which
reduce usability and purposefulness of the tools. One study on the usage of Ushahidi during Haitis earthquake found that a small
number of technical features can support and improve self-organisation, and that various socio-technical features can empower
individual and collective action [44].

In addition to engaging the communities in specifying and designing the tools, some standard emergency response practices and
policies should be digitally adopted to guide the use of social media during crises [45]. One idea to improve the identification of
relevant information is using different hashtags as labels for emergency-related messages. This should be considered as
equivalent to dialling numbers for different emergencies (e.g., fire, police, ambulance). The functioning of such hashtags,
however, crucially depends on their use. Social media is, first and foremost, a communication vehicle, and such hashtags are only
likely to be used if they are part of an ongoing conversation between communities of responders, and those who are (potentially)

5. Engagement: Design principles for to empower communities

Citizen science and crowdsourcing can contribute to resilience by promoting Edwards (2009) four E: (1) Empowerment, by
raising individual and organizational awareness of the situation, risks, possible actions and policies, (2) Engagement, by fostering
networking and communication, (3) Education, by teaching communities about technologies and frameworks, and (4)
Encouragement to play an active role in designing resilient cities. Although crowdsourcing platforms have produced inspiring
solutions, there are still many open social, organizational and technical challenges that needs to be addressed in designing
networked resilience.

Distributed scenario construction and multi-criteria decision support enable a community to collectively explore and navigate
complex and highly uncertain problems [46]. The theoretical basis for my work conducted will draw on distributed multi-agent
systems for information sharing, coordination and collaboration [38,47]. Today, in many cases generic information products such
as maps or infographics are shared with the whole world, adding to the problem of cognitive overload [48]. To realize the shifts
towards netcentric coordination [49] a design framework needs to be developed with communities, responders and decision-
makers that enables them to efficiently share targeted information, and to promote awareness and engagement among citizens.

If information provided by communities is to have an impact, professional organizational structures need to be adapted to enable
its uptake. Specifically in crises, decision power and authority has to be delegated to the lowest possible level, while information
needs to be distributed vertically and horizontally across communities and organizations [50]. So far, however, efficient
coordination mechanisms and design principles are lacking to ensure that goals are aligned across hierarchies and communities;
hence local response, if it is detached from the overall vision, can lead to further disturbance. Particularly when situations are
complex, there is a tendency to simplify problems and to exert control through limited consultations and conflict avoidance [51].
To overcome this rigidity, the design framework will focus on processes to support empowerment and self-management of
communities and cities. The resulting system-of-systems will be designed to support (1) emergence of trusted ad-hoc expertise
networks with evolving roles; (2) rapid negotiation and coordination support in distributed networks; (3) agile scenario-based
reasoning to address complex challenges, adapt to new information and shifting aims.

6. Conclusions and Discussion

While there is an increasing realisation in practice that communities are at the heart of resilience, research still mostly focuses on
the response by authorities and professional responders [1]. Less attention has been given to bottom-up approaches, especially in
the recovery phase [52], thus justifying the need of intensifying research agenda on the participation of individuals and local
communities not only as providers of information but also as actors therein [18]. While in [53] the authors define 4 patterns for
social media usage in crises, depending on a distinction of public authorities and citizens as sender or receiver of information, the
research presented in this envisions the design of information systems that fosters the interplay of multiple actors. To promote
citizen participation in community resilience, a number of conditions and requirements need to be met, such as managing
voluntarism and convergence of needs/skills/knowledge, promoting partnership between social groups, and reinforcing the
culture of collaboration. All of these conditions need to be fostered before and during crises, calling for overcoming the
traditional barriers between disaster risk reduction and response.

The literature review and discussion on the resilience concepts and other relevant theories related to sensemaking, coordination,
and decision support highlight the fragmentation of the field. Most notably, it is still not understood how communities do interact
in the transition from the preparedness into the response to an emergency, and how decision and sensemaking processes evolve
during this transition. While crises and disasters naturally call for rapid action and intervention, this very reactive mode should
not conflict with the longer term chances for sustainable development of a community.
Author name / Procedia Engineering 00 (2016) 000000 5

The use of information and communication technology (ICT) is a means to enable empowerment, communication, and
engagement between responders, deployers and communities. We therefore propose a research agenda to investigate the role of
social capital, information, and technology in community resilience to crises; how these roles differ across different crises,
communities, and demographics; and how different groups communicate, collaborate or coordinate over time. From such
research design and functional requirements can be derived for adopting and integrating resilience procedures and methodologies
into technology development.

The research agenda will be implemented in the context of a European research project, that sets out to develop a community
resilience platform based on Ushahidi. Design principles for a participatory system that supports ad-hoc self-orchestration for
agile coordination and planning will be developed together with communities in India, Kenya and Egypt in a series of workshops
and focus groups. A specific focus will be contextualisation and shared meaning through sensemaking.


The research that has lead to the results presented in this paper has received funding from the COMRADES project
(, Grant agreement No 687847), under the European Unions Horizon 2020 research and
innovation programme.


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