Friday, May 01, 2009

Personal rules for managing 'noise' during crisis situations

NOTICE: This commentary mentions the H1N1 outbreak but it is not an update of the crisis per se. You should treat this post as potential 'noise' by default.

First, let me say there's a Charity Fun Day 2009 organised by the Assisi Hospice. It's tomorrow, 2 May 2009. Some precautions have been taken because of the H1N1 outbreak (e.g. advisory to stall participants on who should stay home; and agreement to be subjected to temperature-taking). See also, Otterman's post here.
Assisi Charity Fun Day 2009
Link | sharedcopy

I was reflecting on recent developments about the Swine Flu, now officially called influenza A(H1N1) by the World Health Organisation.
WHO | World Health Organization

My friend Walter wrote in his blog that "a major global crisis like Swine Flu appear to be more talked about and discussed in mainstream rather than social media." He contrasted it with the much noiser and emotional discussions about these two Dominoes Pizza workers who were charged with food tampering.

Then another friend, Kevin, shared this Wired Magazine article by Clive Thompson, on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge.
After years of celebrating the information revolution, we need to focus on the countervailing force: The disinformation revolution.

In relating Clive Thompson's article to the H1N1 crisis, I don't think people who blog about the crisis (or Tweet or post in Facebook) are deliberately trying to create any disinformation. Of course, some might unwittingly do so if they phrase their opinions to sound like facts.

I suspect some people may frown upon others posting/ blogging/ tweeting updates and comments on the developing crisis situation. The concern being that more noise would lead to panic.

But fact is that people will talk.

They need to.

If it's not blogs or Twitter or Facebook, it'll be at coffee shops, cafes, classrooms, office lounges, in the trains and on buses.

I don't claim to be the authority on this. This is just a sharing of what I subconsciously practice with regards to dealing with information about the current H1N1 outbreak.
  1. Know the source of the information (i.e. are they official or unofficial)
  2. Check with official sources
  3. Make up my own mind. Trust myself

I'd prioritise my sources of information in this order:
  • Official Local sources - (Ministry of health, for health-specific information) and (Singapore Government Crisis Website, for general crisis updates and local instructions)
  • Official International sources -
  • My employer
  • Unofficial sources (Friends, Blogs etc.)

For health and crisis-reaction information, my preference is on local information before international. Obviously, local updates impact me in a more immediate manner.

My employer would also be an important source of information. Their rules and policies would dictate how employees have to act during times of crisis. In my case, it also dictates how we serve and what we communicate to the public during the affected period.

However, I'd still verify any health-related instructions, issued from my employer or internal committees, with first-hand official sources (i.e. Ministry of Health and the Singapore Government Crisis website). This isn't about not trusting my employer or colleagues. It's about not taking information for granted when it comes to public safety and interest.

Unofficial sources like blogs and word-of-mouth updates from friends are equally important. For the H1N1 situation, I'm often first alerted to official updates from Tweets Twitter and postings in email lists. Simply because I spend more time on those social networking sites (I don't know of anyone who'd stare at official sites minute-by-minute). The important thing is to verify these unofficial sources with offical ones.

As I mentioned earlier, most people would not deliberately create disinformation. If anyone feels that bloggers and Twitters are sources of confusion, I'd say they are missing the point.

What could be done is to encourage people to cite their information source. Mention where they obtained the information or provide a link. Let their readers/ listeners verify the information.

Public libraries and librarians could take a lead in this (you knew this line was coming, right? LOL)

Take Precautions. Stay informed. Stay alert. Life Goes On.

Rather than being worried about what is uncontrollable (the crisis itself, or information noise), the productive way might be to learn how to filter out the noise during times of crisis. Form our own independent and informed decisions.

Tomorrow I've volunteered to help my band buddy at the Assisi Hospice Charity Fun Day. Last year was my first experience with the event (Adrian blogged about it here; see also Siva's post). I was glad I was able to put whatever limited skills I had to good use. : )

I'm sure the H1N1 outbreak will mean fewer people turning up. That's reality. Besides, anyone with flu or fever, or not feeling well in general, should stay home and rest.

Depending on whether the H1N1 crisis escalates or not, there's a chance the event might be called off.

Until then, we'll plan as if things will go on. And be prepared if it doesn't.

[Update: This post from Siva is also worth reading. He reinforces the need to be a reliable source of information, and shares how he practices it].


  1. I blogged along a similar line at The Biology Refugia.

    I guess the issue of managing noise is of particular relevance to those of us glued to our computer monitors.

    The non-internet junkie gets comprehensive information from tv and newspapers - the media is being briefed by the minister regularly.

    Then again, in this information age, this noise: signal ratio will always bug us.

  2. Thanks, Siva, for the link. Folks, do check out Siva's article at The Biology Refugia.

    This excerpt from Siva's post is especially worth-noting: "The chatter is welcome instead of silence, but with any communication medium, the undiscerning reader runs the chance of being misinformed almost as easily.

    The chance of being misinformed increases when a reader engages in multi-tasking activities or lays claim to "reading" hundreds of sources - in a crisis I am reluctant to rely on rss-skimming friends for specific facts, but rather, use their pointers as potential sources of information pending investigation before further forwards. And beware that one time you relax your guard - it will be the occasion in which you contribute to the problem of misinformation!"

  3. Hey thanks for this piece. And good to see you there. Noise is something we all deal with daily. At work, in our emails, presentations and documents we create. In the financial markets, as we deal with the deluge of information daily. Same for the swine flu outbreak. Just signing up for Google's Alerts that updates "as it happens," is enough to overwhelm all of us. Less is more. The paradox of choice.


Join the conversation. Leave a comment :)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.