Information Arrangement in the ER

I had the opportunity to work on an emergency blog that grew from one of the environmental crises we have experienced too often in recent years.  The blog was a primary source of survival information.  Local bloggers in the disaster area posted emergency resources with increasing frequency as the rescue progressed.

When I entered the project, the blog’s long list of time-based postings made it difficult to find targeted information.  The best contribution I make is always structure and the blog’s lead team was ready.  We triaged categories, developing the most urgent into separate pages.  Instead of a chronology of postings, we organized by location and alphabet.  It’s a fast technique with immense ROI.  The investment was a few minutes of cleaning data and sorting.  The return was a logical and efficient structure offering a calm interaction for desperate people.

I immediately started pulling all-nighters.  Sleep was a challenge.  Wake up and the whole crew had changed, but the new volunteers were eager to help.  Local bloggers inside the disaster sent us lists of emergency services with as much contact data as they could gather.  The lists were always random.  These bloggers were too busy surviving and looking for relatives to think about structure.

My team sat in safe offices, an eternity away from the disaster.  Instead of the shirts off our backs, we gave extra minutes of organizing.  The effort at our end saved critical time for survivors, time that could be the line between life and death.

We were soon approached by a computer professional.  The next priority was a list of emergency responders.  The computer pro took the project and did pretty well on the location part.  But here’s what we got for an alphabetized list of names, substituting characters from the TV show ER.

Abby Lockhart, RN Dr. Doug Ross Elizabeth Corday, MD Jeanie Boulet, PA
Benton, Peter, MD Dr. Greene, Mark Finch, Dr. Cleo Kerry Weaver, MD
Carter, Dr. John Dr. Malucci, Dave Gregory Pratt, MD Luka Kovac, MD
Dr. Anna Del Amico Dr. Romano, Robert Hathaway, Carol, RN Mr. Michael Gallant
Dr. Chen, Deb Jing-Mei Dr. Susan Lewis Intern Ray Barnett Ms Knight, Lucy

When I explained the problem, the pro got hysterical.  That was how the names had been originally delivered.  To correct the error, someone would have to go in and manually change the names and no one in their right mind would do that.  It was the only fight I experienced in the blog’s otherwise cooperative atmosphere.

The list of emergency responders had about 100 names and would have taken possibly 15 minutes to clean up.  Fifteen minutes for people in dire stress.  But for our pro, that was cheating.  If desperate people had to spend extra time in the midst of chaos, well, that’s just the rules of the game.  The computer pro put marginal mechanics above human suffering, even as the blog team changed all the rules and cheated death.

Technical certificates do not equal a talent for information display nor do they indicate an understanding of information’s service component.  In the previous July 26 posting, retail environmentalists naively combined navigational categories with product categories.  Like the computer pro, they don’t understand the basics of arranging information for display.  But unlike the pro, they understand service.  They’re serving the earth, doing what they do best by distributing innovative environmental products.  When I had the opportunity to join a rescue effort with bloggers who served 110%, I did what I do best and taught the team to think structurally.  The computer pro was too absorbed by a machine to offer the best.

Aug 2006