What have airlines learned from dealing with volcanic ash when, last week, much of the European airspace was shut down? (If you're a listener rather than a reader, click here.) Are there lessons for HCIT? Yes.
I'm not trying to be exhaustive, but here are some highlights. I've provided some source links for those of you who might be interested, if only to read the titles.
- The decision to shut down all of the airspace was an over-reaction, probably driven by over reliance on weak computer models, and a failure to consult with airlines and government agencies (including government agencies in the US).
- The problem of volcanic ash and jet air travel is far from new. Alaska Air and KLM both have more than two decades of relevant experience. Bottom line: collect the right data early and continually, validate your models, and you can safely fly around volcanic ash.
- The congested airspace in Europe, hundreds of airports and 28,000 flight per day make it more imperative to build, maintain and validate airspace models in real time, and use them.
- "Your data is bad and my patients are sicker." This volcanic ash was different (involving glaciers), but crisis response was contrary to best practices.
The Lessons For HCIT:
- Train the decision makers ahead of time; this is critical to avoid ignorant responses. A pre-occupation with what can happen and how systems fail if critical to HCIT system design. Not a new lesson for HCI readers, but timely validation. Training requires planning, simulators, testing and often external expertise. Are you testing your data backups by restoring them on another system?
- Computer modeling is becoming essential in our complex world. Accurate and early input data is crucial. Using the data is crucial. Getting experience with using the models is critical. Those of us who use our car's GPS, even when we don't need it, are practicing this lesson. You cannot know the false-positive rates if you only use the technology during a crisis.
- Learn from others; this takes patience, time and discipline, but it's essential. Alaska Air (think Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 ), deals with volcanic ash on a regular basis and has for years. Apparently, it's not just Americans being too parochial to learn from the Europeans!
The crisis response is rarely pretty, whether to a natural act like a volcano, or to a social or technology breakdown in HCIT. Having a well-designed set of rules, policies and information reporting systems in place and matured are essential to avoiding panicked-based over-responses. That's what I think volcanic ash clouds teach us, or at least remind us.