Wednesday, 22 February 2017

'Optimisation' in disaster relief is a joke

Some of the principal characteristics of disaster situations are as follows. (1) Conditions on the ground are uncertain and liable to change in unpredictable ways. (2) Knowledge of conditions is incomplete and likely to remain so for the duration of the emergency, despite the best efforts of all concerned. (3) A common operating picture is created and shared only slowly and with much arduous work. (4) Field commanders and coordinators want simple solutions that require no great effort of thought or computation, not because they are unintelligent, but because they must devote almost all of their attention to directing emergency work. (5) Face-to-face communication is the most vital means of conveying information and the only one that can utilise the full range of people's sensory attributes. (6) Managing the convergence reaction is such a complex logistical exercise that it is inevitable that the outcome is approximate rather than precise.

Recently, there has been a sudden upsurge in the application of operations research (OR) to the management of sudden impact disasters. Mathematical and statistical algorithms are being written in the hope of optimising logistical actions. The circulation of traffic, the evacuation of cities, stockpiling and warehousing relief goods, improving vehicle fleet management, and so on, are some of the goals. Much of the work is inductive and relies on vacuuming up data, whacking them into order and squeezing them through a set of equations or matrices in order to produce the 'perfect' output.

Imagine this in the field. The earth shakes, producing massive destruction and a substantial toll of casualties. We whip out the iPad or laptop computer and turn it on. We turn to WiFi, but it has gone. So has the cable-based network and the local electricity supply. Nevertheless, the device still has some battery power. We crank up the algorithm and work out where best to stockpile relief goods. The solution that the algorithm proposes is unworkable because (a) we have no time and resources to build warehouses; (b) the accessibility of places has changed radically because of route blockages (rubble in the street, buildings in danger of collapse, damaged bridges, etc.); (c) rendezvous points have to be agreed with many organisations.

The process of OR modelling for optimisation of disaster relief is completely dependent on the quality of the assumptions that underlie it. In most cases these are scarce, threadbare, or simply unworkable. They do not mirror the real situation, as most of the modellers have no experience of conception of what that is like.

Science is very susceptible to fads and fashions. Perhaps the stimulus which motivates the current craze for mathematical optimisation of disaster relief is a desire to bring order to chaos. What could be more attractive than turning a messy, inefficient situation into one which is clean, streamlined and super-functional? If this is the motivation, then it ignores--at its peril--the old Aristotlean idea of generatio and corruptio. In disasters, as in so much else, forces are at work that break down order while other forces that create it are also at work and conflict with them. Many disaster plans have gone haywire because people have not done what the assumptions said they would do. One assumption is that we all have the same motives and objectives. We do not.

Perhaps the biggest chasm that would need to be bridged here is the one that occurs between the academics and the field coordinators. How can algorithms work if the cultures are different, have different receptivities, work towards different goals, and have different expectations? Disaster management would be so simple if no people were involved. People are such a nuisance, with their huge variety of attitudes and behaviours (Kirschenbaum 2003).

Will artificial intelligence do the trick? The current craze is to use the analytical hierarchy process (AHP), which uses inductive reasoning to make decisions. Rather than substituting the decision process, AHP merely shifts it to a different part of the process. If the initial decisions are wrong, so is the outcome, a classic "garbage in, garbage out" syndrome (Whitaker 2007).

When we have finally got the algorithm to spit out the perfect solution for step one, and have applied it by directing all traffic down one road to one site, the battery finally fades out and the computer is dead. Has anybody got a spare battery? No.

In disaster relief, we do not optimise: we try to muddle through until the end and keep wastage to less than ten per cent.


Kirschenbaum, A. 2003. Chaos, Organisation and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 318 pp.

Whitaker, R. 2007. Criticisms of the analytic hierarchy process: why they often make no sense. Mathematical and Computer Modelling 46(7-8) 948-961.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

What is essential reading in disaster studies?

Disaster studies have grown enormously since I started in the field 37 years ago. At that time there were few protagonists, two journals and not many papers. Now there are more than 80 journals that deal entirely or mainly with disasters or closely related topics, and more than 500 that publish papers in this field at intervals that vary from occasionally to frequently. There are now many thousands of 'disasterologists' in universities, research institutes and planning and policy offices throughout the world.

As a journal editor who deals with about 800 unpublished manuscripts a year in this field, it often strikes me that one of the biggest issues with papers is that the authors do not have an adequate grounding in the field. This induces them to ignore fundamental research or, equally often, to "reinvent the wheel" by duplicating previous research that they have not read. Lack of familiarity with the field induces model makers to adopt untenable assumptions, which would not stand up in real situations. Theoretical developments are stymied by the tendency of those who have not read enough to go round and round covering debates that have already happened many times before (what is resilience? Who cares?). Finally, the opportunities for discussion are reduced by lack of common ground.

In another of these postings I put forward the idea that 2017 is the centenary of academic studies of disaster. Whether or not that is the case, we are close to some kind of anniversary, as the 1920s were a time in which disaster studies set sail on the choppy sea of academic endeavour.

In conversation with colleagues, it seems that there is some support for the idea that we can compile the core curriculum. This would consist of key academic works that broke new ground and are fundamental to an understanding of what the field is and where it has gone during its century of existence.

I do not wish to be dictatorial. I have no power, moral, intellectual or otherwise, to mandate what should be read. However, I have some ideas about key works and I list them below. Many, even the oldest of them, are available as downloadable pdfs. Please note that the list is tentative and by no means exhaustive. It would be best not to overextend it, but I am sure to have left of some highly significant works. I list the works chronologically and not alphabetically. No doubt the list will grow as others take up the challenge and argue to add, or even subtract, works.

I have not included textbooks. There are some very good ones in circulation, but the choice is up to the reader. I have included books that, in my view, have had a seminal impact upon the development of the subject.

Towards a core curriculum

Dunant, Henri 1859. A Memory of Solferino. International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 38 pp.

Walford, Cornelius 1879. The Famines of the World, Past and Present. Edward Stanford, London, 303 pp.

Prince, Samuel Henry 1920. Catastrophe and Social Change: Based Upon a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster. Studies in History, Economics and Public Law no. 94. Colombia University Press, New York, 151 pp.

Barrows, Harlan H. 1923. Geography as human ecology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 13: 1-14.

Carr, Lowell Julliard 1932. Disaster and the sequence-pattern concept of social change. American Journal of Sociology 38(2): 207-218.

White, Gilbert Fowler 1945. Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States. Research Paper no. 29. Department of Geography, University of Chicago, 225 pp.

Fritz, Charles E. and Eli S. Marks 1954. The NORC studies of human behavior in disaster. Journal of Social Issues 10(3): 26-41.

Moore, Harry Estill 1956. Towards a theory of disaster. American Sociological Review 21: 734-737.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1956. Human Behavior During Extreme Situations. Disaster Study no. 1. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 35 pp.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1956. Tornado in Worcester. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Disaster Study no. 3. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 166 pp.

Fritz, Charles E. and J.H. Mathewson 1957. Convergence Behavior in Disasters: A Problem in Social Control. Disaster Study no. 9. National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 102 pp.

Fritz, Charles E. and Harry B. Williams 1957. The human being in disasters: a research perspective. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 309: 42-51.

Barton, Alan H. 1963. Social Organization Under Stress: A Sociological Review of Disaster Studies. Disaster Study no. 17, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 208 pp.

Barton, Alan H. 1970. Communities in Disaster: A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations. Doubleday, New York, 368 pp.

Bates, Frederick L. 1963. The Social and Psychological Consequences of a Natural Disaster: A Longitudinal Study of Hurricane Audrey. Disaster Study no. 18, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. 190 pp.

Anderson, Jon W. 1967. Cultural adaptation to threatened disaster. Human Organization 27: 298-307.

Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates and Gilbert F. White 1968. The Human Ecology of Extreme Geophysical Events. Natural Hazards Research Working Paper no. 1. Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 29 pp.

Hewitt, Kenneth 1970. Probabilistic approaches to discrete natural events: a review and theoretical discussion. Economic Geography Supplement 46(2): 332-349.

Russell, Clifford S., 1970. Losses from natural hazards. Land Economics 46: 383-393.

Hewitt, Kenneth and Ian Burton 1971. The Hazardousness of Place: A Regional Ecology of Damaging Events. Research Publication no. 6, Department of Geography, University of Toronto. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 154 pp.

Kates, Robert W. 1971. Natural hazards in human ecological perspective: hypothesis and model. Economic Geography 47(3): 438-451.

White, Gilbert F. (ed.) 1974. Natural Hazards: Local, National, Global. Oxford University Press, New York, 288 pp.

Dynes, Russell R. 1975. The comparative study of disaster: a social organizational approach. Mass Emergencies 1: 21-31.

O'Keefe, Phil, Ken Westgate and Ben Wisner 1976. Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature 260: 566-567.

Haas, J. Eugene, Robert W. Kates and Martyn J. Bowden (eds) 1977. Reconstruction Following Disaster. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 331 pp.

Davis, Ian 1978. Shelter After Disaster. Oxford Polytechnic Press, Oxford, 127 pp.

Burton, Ian, Robert W. Kates and Gilbert F. White 1978, 1993. The Environment as Hazard. First edn Oxford University Press, New York, 240 pp; Second edn Guilford Press, New York, 304 pp.

Timmerman, Peter 1981. Vulnerability, Resilience and the Collapse of Society. Environmental Monograph no. 1, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Toronto, Toronto, 42 pp.

Davis, Ian (ed.) 1981. Disasters and the Small Dwelling. Pergamon, Oxford, 220 pp.

Douglas, M. and A. Wildavsky 1982. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 224 pp.

Hewitt, Kenneth (ed.) 1983. Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 304 pp.

Hewitt, Kenneth 1983. The idea of calamity in a technocratic age. In K. Hewitt (ed.) Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Unwin-Hyman, London: 3-32.

Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Trans M. Ritter. Sage, London, 260 pp.

Blaikie, Piers, Terry Cannon, Ian Davis and Ben Wisner 1994, 2003. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters. Routledge, London, 320 pp.

Quarantelli, Enrico L. 1995. What is a disaster? International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(3): 221-229.

Horlick-Jones, Tom 1995. Modern disasters as outrage and betrayal. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 13(3): 305-315.

Quarantelli, Enrico L. 1997. Problematical aspects of the information/communication revolution for disaster planning and research: ten non-technical issues and questions. Disaster Prevention and Management 6(2): 94-106.

Quarantelli, Enrico L. (ed.) 1998. What is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question. Routledge, London, 312 pp.

Mileti, Dennis S. (ed.) 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. John Henry Press, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 351 pp.

Perrow, C. 1999. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (2nd edn). Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 386 pp.
Perrow, C. 2001. Accidents, normal. In N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Pergamon, Oxford. 33-38

Slovic, P. (ed.) 2000. The Perception of Risk. Risk, Society and Policy Series. Earthscan, London, 384 pp.

Stallings, Robert A. (ed.) 2002. Methods of Disaster Research. International Research Committee on Disasters Book Series no. 2. Xlibris, Philadelphia, 524 pp.

Perry, Ronald W. and Enrico L. Quarantelli (eds) 2005. What is a Disaster? New Answers to Old Questions. Xlibris Press, Philadelphia, 375 pp.

Rubin, C.B (ed.) 2012. Emergency Management: The American Experience 1900-2010 (2nd edn). CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 314 pp.

General science

Some works of more general science are particularly useful to disaster studies. Here is my selection.

Paine, Thomas 1794. The Age of Reason. Edition 2009, Truth Seeker Company, Escondido, California, 358 pp.

Kant, Immanuel 1798. The Conflict of the Faculties (Der Streit der Fakult├Ąten). Trans. Mary J. Gregor, Edition 1979, Amaris Books, New York, 221 pp.

Maslow, Abraham Harold 1943. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370-396.

Von Bertalanffy, K. Ludwig 1950. The theory of open systems in physics and biology. Science 111: 23-29.

Von Bertalanffy, K. Ludwig 1950. An outline of General Systems Theory. British Journal of Philosophical Sciences 1: 139-164.

Simon, Herbert A. 1956. Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review 63: 129-138.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962, 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 222 pp.

Simon, Herbert A. 1962. The architecture of complexity. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106(6): 467-482.

Ackerman, Edward A. 1963. Where is a research frontier? Annals of the Association of American Geographers 53(4): 429-440.

Harvey, David 1969. Scientific explanation: the model of natural science. Ch. 4. Explanation in Geography. Edward Arnold, London: 30-43.

Simon, Herbert A. 1978. On how to decide what to do. The Bell Journal of Economics 9(2): 494-507.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Explosions: A Curious Coincidence

 Source: Museum of London (see reference below).

At 6.52 pm on Friday 19 January 1917 a munitions factory exploded in Silvertown, a docklands district of east London. Fifty tonnes of TNT went up in a disaster that is still London's largest explosion. Seventy-three people were killed, 400 were injured, some critically, 900 properties (including 600 houses) were destroyed and 70,000 were damaged, including some in central London. The noise of the explosion was heard in many distant parts of southeast England. A gasometer in North Greenwich received the full force of the blast and released 200,000 m3 of gas in a massive fireball (Wikipedia 2017). Up to 1000 rescue workers were sent to the site. The explosion cost the British State £1.8 million, of which £10,173,595 was paid in compensation to third parties. Ten per cent of the compensation went to the owners of the TNT factory, who managed to restore part of the works to functionality.

The Museum of London has digitised and put on line 24 plate photographs of the damage, which were taken for insurance and litigation purposes by the contemporary photographer John H. Avery (Museum of London 2017).

This event is singular for two reasons. First, it is little known and unremembered (in London or elsewhere), even though there are two memorials to it. To be fair, London historians and some of the descendants of those who were killed did mark the centenary of the event. However, the explosion is seldom referred to in accounts of London's wartime or Edwardian history.

Of course, loss of life in civilian catastrophes that occur during war is not usually considered to be particularly newsworthy. Munitions have to be made in great haste, often by people with little training or expertise: the factory in Silvertown produced 10 tonnes of TNT a day, although with very poor risk management, according to the official enquiry into the disaster. During the First World War, about 600 people were killed in munitions factories in accidental explosions (Historic England 2017). During the Second World War, a farm was obliterated by an explosion in the English Midlands: that is to say, not merely all the buildings, but the fields as well. The incident passed almost without comment. One is put in mind of the greatest railway disaster of all time, at Balvano in southern Italy in 1944, where the death toll probably exceeded 1,000, and the event is virtually unknown (Barneschi 2005, 2014.).

The second reason why the Silvertown explosion is worthy of comment here is because it has its centenary in the same year as that of the Halifax, Nova Scotia, ship explosion. In my earlier piece in this blog, I argued that the Halifax incident was the start of academic studies of disaster. The Silvertown event was the exact opposite. The official report into the explosion was not released to the public for almost 40 years. What a contrast!


Barneschi, G. 2005. Balvano 1944: i segreti di un disastro ferroviario ignorato. Testimonianze fra cronaca e storia. 1939-1945: seconda guerra mondiale. Mursia, Milano, 290 pp.

Barneschi, G. 1914. Balvano 1944. Indagine su un disastro rimosso. Edizione, Novecento, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, Gorizia, 339 pp.

Historic England 2017. First World War: accidental explosions. (accessed 4 February 2017)

Museum of London 2017. Silvertown explosion. (accessed 4 February 2017)

Wikipedia 2017. Silvertown explosion. (accessed 4 February 2017)

Monday, 23 January 2017

The PhD problem

A few years ago while writing a book together, Professor Ian Davis and I swapped horror stories about examining doctoral theses. We had a rich experience of the negative side of this process and so we decided to turn it into an article which would highlight the problems. It was published in February 2014 in Times Higher Education (Alexander and Davis 2014). We thought the issue was very important indeed for universities and we expected considerable feedback, whether positive or negative. In fact we received almost none. I recall a colleague whom I met at a conference mentioning that he had read the article and agreed with it, but that was all the feedback I received.

Yet the issue is still very important and the problem we discussed seems to be getting worse.

One of the key words in academia is 'more' (the other one is 'money'). More students paying more fees, with more outcomes - but always positive, of course. Ian and I had examined a wide variety of PhD theses. Some were good, of course they were, and in those cases standards had not slipped. Others were atrocious and, moreover, the universal expectation was that they would pass.

Over the past two or three years I have examined, or tried to examine, more than a dozen PhD theses. I have my own ideas about what constitutes an acceptable thesis, but as this is not intended to me a publishable paper in the subject I will not go through them here. They are pretty straightforward and somewhat traditional. I am not averse to the new mode of creating a thesis out of a collection of published papers, but:-
  • they must have coherence and contribute to a uniform goal
  • they must be published in refereed journals, not merely be submitted or in press
  • they must be preceded by a substantial introduction which explains how they fit together and form a progression of ideas towards the unified goal of the thesis
  • even though they will be autonomous, self-contained works, the papers must be linked by a strong common thread, which represents a single process of the development of ideas.
If the last of these is not true, then, logically, anyone who publishes four to six papers in refereed journals should automatically be awarded a PhD degree, but that is in no one's interests. All in all, it is probably easier to write a monograph-style thesis than to produce a good collection of journal papers. Both should be judged by the same criteria.

Ian and I have both found ourselves in tense situations and we have both been vilified for our respective judgements of the acceptability of theses. There is increasingly an expectation that to submit a thesis is to have it passed for the award of the degree. In the past, quality control was such that this was usually the case. There were few incentives to promote a sub-standard thesis. Not any more.

The trouble with examining a PhD thesis is that one is examining the supervisor as much as the student. The only exception to this are the very rare cases in which the thesis is submitted for examination against the advice of the supervisor. After lax or incompetent supervision, the reaction of the supervisor may be as unpleasant as that of the student when judgement finally arrives. This is very stressful for all concerned. More than once, as examiner, I have been put in the position of being regarded as the culprit, merely because I pointed out the very evident deficiencies of the thesis. Yet the examiner has to be the guarantor of standards.

Disaster risk reduction is a field that has attracted more and more academics, but as we have done little to establish a consensus about what one needs to know to be expert in this field, there are those who lack the knowledge to be able to supervise research students in it. They therefore fail to see everything from the small-scale errors to the major failures of strategy in a student's work.

Broadly speaking, I have found that the most cocksure candidates are those whose work is least admirable. Self-deception all so easily replaces solid ability. In the worst instances, the student and supervisor may try for all they are worth to usurp the position of the examiner. They may well succeed, such are the elaborate mechanisms in universities to avoid the stain of failure. PhD students are fee-paying customers, and the customer is always right.

The main point of Ian's and my article in THE was that the PhD is the 'gold standard' of the academic world. If we let inferior theses pass, in a few years their authors will be the PhD supervisors of even worse candidates. And it seems to be happening.

The only ray of sunshine upon this gloomy picture is that under the current circumstances there is no inherent reason why a PhD thesis should not be good. It is still possible to produce a rigorous piece of work that genuinely advances the frontiers of knowledge. Most of the doctoral theses I have examined in recent years have not been good enough to receive my wholehearted endorsement. Indeed, I have more than once refused to proceed with the examination: let someone else take the strain. However, I did recently examine one that was a tour de force, masterly in its explanation, penetrating in its insight. Experiences like this keep one going.


Alexander, D. and I. Davis 2014. Fit to supervise? Times Higher Education 20 February 2014: 34-38.