Information's first responders

The massive earthquake and tsunami that killed 562 and displaced 1.5 million Chileans last year left behind a world of hurt. Survivors needed food, water. They needed shelter. And they desperately needed information. Where were their loved ones? Were they OK? Did they still have a job? How could they get government assistance?

New fieldwork from iSchool researchers and their Chilean partners shows how the country's dedicated librarians and telecenter operators scrambled to fill that information gap, often in treacherous circumstances and often at personal cost.

With the earth still trembling in aftershock, these library and telecenter staff rescued books and computers from crumbling buildings. They helped set up mobile Internet centers and interactive libraries in tents using satellite reception. They walked through their stricken communities knocking on doors, putting up flyers, working with groups to ensure that people who needed services knew where to go.

"There was a sense of urgency, a passion to get things up and running as quickly as possible," says Maria Garrido, research assistant professor with the iSchool's Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA), which explores how information and communication technologies (ICT ) can improve the lives of people who face social and economic barriers.

Garrido and iSchool doctoral student Beth Patin traveled to some of Chile's hardest-hit areas in February, one year after the 8.8-magnitude terremoto crumpled adobe walls, caved in roofs, ripped up roads, and stirred up a destructive coastal tsunami. The researchers' mission: to investigate the role public access to ICT plays in disaster management, working in concert with TASCHA's Chilean partners from the Association of Active Telecenters in Chile (ATACH).

"We're looking at the types of information needs that arise after disasters, how people go to public access venues to fulfill those needs, and how information use fluctuates and changes during a crisis," says Patin, who understands those issues both as an iSchool crisis informatics scholar and as a former New Orleans school librarian who had to rebuild structures and collections after Hurricane Katrina.

To examine crisis information needs in Chile, the iSchool researchers interviewed library and telecenter users and staff, government officials, and leaders of the country's progressive telecenter and library systems. They also conducted in-depth focus group sessions that often turned emotional as survivors shared personal stories of fears and losses. One mother told of a daughter who woke up screaming about water coming up out of the sea -- a "horrible premonition."

Another participant described how a cousin walked seven miles to get to a village to help relatives. "The participants often used our research space like community therapy," says Garrido.

For survivors, the first urgent need was locating friends and family. As soon as they could get access at libraries and telecenters, they emailed, tweeted, used Google People Search, Skyped, and scoured online lists provided by first responders. Most libraries and telecenters were linked on Facebook, so operators could post search messages for loved ones across a wide network of locations. "There was a very coordinated effort to help people locate people," says Garrido. "It grew organically, through a lot of social connections."

The iSchool work -- supported by TASCHA through grants from Microsoft Community Affairs, Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and a grant to IDRC from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- shows the deep commitment of library and telecenter workers to their communities after the disaster. In towns turned to rubble, short on supplies and power, they often worked to exhaustion, making sure they knew each individual, what they were going through, and taking on the "emotional toll of their communities," says Garrido. "They listened from nine in the morning until ten at night about people's personal tragedies, then they went home to total darkness."

Whether library and telecenter staffs were handing out books or clothing, whether they were working in buildings or tents, they were determined to create a safe refuge, a shared place of normalcy amid the damage and destruction. "This is an area of ICT research we do not emphasize enough," says Garrido. "Public access to ICT isn't just about technology, it is also about the dynamics of the social space where that technology is embedded."

That expansive role has transformed perceptions about libraries and telecenters in post-quake Chile, says Patin. "These people were really there for communities, and it changed the way community members saw these places. These weren't just someplace for kids to play games -- they were places where people could gets news immediately, could find families, could apply for government subsidies, could get computer training, and get help from staff."

Despite the critical role they played in the disaster, Chilean libraries and telecenters had to campaign hard to get governmental resources to repair, rebuild, and relocate structures damaged or destroyed in the quake. In the most affected regions, almost one-third of libraries were so badly damaged they were forced to close. Said one librarian in a YouTube interview conducted by BiblioRedes, the national library organization: "We had to convince authorities that providing information to the community was as important as providing food and basic supplies."

The iSchool team -- including iSchool MLIS graduate Melody Clark, research coordinator for TASCHA's Global Impact Study -- is using the Chilean research to determine common strategies that can be applied in a multitude of emergencies and disasters. Initial recommendations include: disaster training for communities; setting up generators that can allow immediate Internet use; providing short, consistent plans of action; creating a single space online combining all emergency resources; and finally including libraries and telecenters in disaster response plans.

"We have to let it be known that we play this important role," says Patin, who in April returned to Chile to address the Third Global Telecenter Forum, with participants from more than 100 countries. Everyone there, she said, was talking about, "How do we get governments to recognize our critical role in disasters?" and "When are governments going to realize that we're not in the industrial age anymore -- that we're in the information age?"