This is not a political message. I am going to make a point about how technology can help us collect and then connect the dots. Really. Read on.
The government response to the catastrophic natural disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast has been an embarrassment to all Americans and an added injury to the people left for days to fend for themselves. It's not enough that those who claim to be public servants are running around telling us they couldn't have begun delivering food, water, and security forces to the center of New Orleans the day after the storm, while we watched news media and local workers reach the scene within hours after the eye of Katrina passed.
No, those same indifferent, incompetent "public servants" are preventing private organizations from doing the work for them.
Here's the politically necessary explanation from the American Red Cross website:
- Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.
- The state Homeland Security Department had requested — and continues to request — that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
- The Red Cross shares the nation’s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering.
. . .
Can we find any bright spot in the dismal performance of our government? Well, maybe it's taking a very large step toward making itself irrelevant.
What's this got to do with KM, information design, collecting and connecting dots? Well, my choice of the word "irrelevant" to describe the government comes from a wonderfully optimistic view of our near future in a sci-fi novel from 1989 (NOTE: that's pre-WWW), Earth by David Brin. The society envisioned by Brin is filled with connected "interest groups" that range across scientific, social, religious, recreational, and other categories. These interest groups have evolved to the point where they identify, discuss, research, and solve problems before government bureaucracies can act — indeed, sometimes before officials even become aware of the problem. For a more current vision of what the Web can help us accomplish among groups of networked citizens visit Jon Husband's Wirearchy and Wirearchy blog.
Are we there yet? Sadly, for the people of the Gulf Coast, no.
But signs are growing out of the disaster that we may be headed in that direction. We've seen bloggers providing information from the affected areas (like New Orleans lawyer Ernest "ernie the attorney" Svenson and the annonymous interdictor - with pictures and webcams) and others discussing what the crisis means in the larger context (like Dave Pollard's Save the World). We have librarians collecting useful information links for all of us to collect more dots to help us formulate solutions (Librarians Index to the Internet - Katrina resource page).
Update (9/6/05): direct link to Librarians Index to the Internet hurricane resource page.
We know we have private organizations with the capacity to collect and apply donations (like the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, and Habitat for Humanity) — organizations that operate both on the Web and on the ground.
So maybe people - not just Americans, but people worldwide - will hear some of the angry outbursts from local officials like the Mayor of New Orleans and a local official I heard on TV (see report on Reuters) accuse the lethargic Federal government of murder. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, spoke out on NBC's Meet the Press program [Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005 — six days after Katrina struck], after describing how one woman drowned when promised help failed to arrive:
"[Hurricane Katrina] will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history," he said.
"It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans," he said. "Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now."
He demanded congressional hearings on what went wrong in the chaotic aftermath of the hurricane.
"They've had press conferences. I'm sick of press conferences. For God's sake, shut up and send us somebody."
Maybe people will hear and decide that governments are too indifferent, too lethargic, too corrupt, too tied up in bureaucracy and politics to act in the face of immediate disaster. Maybe we will begin to use the resources that the World Wide Web puts — literally — at our fingertips. Maybe we can begin to live the One World vision that technology makes so tantalizingly close.
Maybe government, as we've practiced it so far, can soon become irrelevant — like the ceremonial monarchies some still cling to.