Chinese, American scientists seek advances in global crisis management

University Park, Pa. — Chinese and American scientists are working collaboratively to develop better ways for society to cope with major crises—particularly ones on the national scale of Hurricane Katrina or of the international magnitude of the 2004 tsunami which devastated coastal nations rimming the Indian Ocean.

This sharing of ideas and insights got a significant boost at Penn State recently during the International Joint Workshop on GeoCollaborative Crisis Management, hosted by the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST). IT systems are believed to hold a key.

Speaking of his nation’s strategic priorities, Chinese consul Zhongying Mao said the focus of the government is on “developing crisis management systems that are based on geospatial information and spatial analytics.”

This is crucial “to provide detailed and visualized geographical and public safety information when making crisis management decisions in support of resource allocation, team dispatch, as well as command-and-control,” said the New York-based diplomat whose responsibilities cover U.S.-Chinese cooperation in science and technology.

“This is an incredibly good time to be working on these problems,” said IST Dean Hank Foley.

“In many ways, crisis management is a complex, dynamic and ad hoc enterprise,” Foley said. “If we start to view it that way and then bring all of the enterprise management tools to bear on it, then we can begin to change the way we think about the whole of the process. We also can be much better prepared to use current and future technology more effectively.”

It is believed, both here and in China, that geocollaborative crisis technologies offer promise because they can help humans cope with both the daunting scope of such tragedies and with the fact they are dynamic events with changing conditions, emerging threats, and unanticipated dangers. As well, governments and agencies rushing to help must not only work cooperatively across administrative lines, but at times across cultural and language barriers as well.

In addition to technology, people and organizations clearly hold a key in the crisis management equation.

Said Foley, “We all know that for these kinds of systems to work well, we need cooperation.”

Pointing to the crisis management workshop, he added, “I couldn’t be happier to see this kind of cooperation…I think it is a very good thing for China and the U.S. to find areas for collaboration and substantive interaction.”

Guoray Cai, associate professor of information sciences and technology and coordinator of the event, agreed: “To respond effectively to natural disasters and man-made crises, governments and communities at all levels must be able to work together.”

“It is strategically important for the U.S. and China to come together on these critical topics,” said Cai, who took part in an earlier companion session on crisis management, held at Lanzhou University, Penn State’s partner institution in China.

Not only did the recent Penn State workshop span international borders by bringing participants from Lanzhou University here but, among the 40 attendees, were experts from the University of Pittsburgh and Texas A & M and leading authorities from IST and Penn State’s colleges of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the Liberal Arts.

On hand were authorities who’ve studied the 2003 SARS outbreak, geographic information systems, the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., collaborative technologies, this year’s earthquake in China, and the human dimensions of delivering emergency relief. Beyond technological issues, China and America have differing approaches in the way crisis management is structured and organized, Cai observed.

“China has a more top-down approach and the U.S. has a more bottom-up approach,” he said. “Each has advantages and disadvantages in some cases.”

“There is a very strong interest among the scientists involved to compare and contrast and to learn from one another,” Cai went on. “We are looking for the right balance between centralized and decentralized, top-down-bottom-up, government or non-government.”

He expressed optimism for the future of these international talks because of the expressed desire by both sides to work cooperatively and because of the mutual familiarity each has with the issues faced by the other.

Organized by the U.S.-China International Working Group on GeoCollaborative Crisis Management (GCCM-WG), the sessions at Penn State and at Lanzhou University were funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Chinese National Science Foundation.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009