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Quickly Noted: Speaking of Message Duplication

January 6, 2010

I’ve been wanting to mention this to you all since April, but I kept forgetting and then after today’s post on PHIRE it seemed appropriate.

Now, this post might give a bit more insight into what I do all day, but I think it’s an important point, so I’m willing to relax my normal standards a bit.

During the opening salvos of H1N1 2009, what did you email inbox look like? Because mine was a disaster. I got every update from CDC. Then again from another listserv I was signed up for. Then again from another. Then yet again from another. Then I started getting the forwards from my colleagues. I would get two or three copies of each individual message, and then someone would start a discussion using “Reply to All.” And NONE of those messages were pertinent to what I needed to do my job, so add of those emails into the mix as well.

I, and my colleagues, quickly learned which people had the latest, most pertinent information and just archived everything else. Reading all of one’s email was simply impossible. By the time you finished one email, four more had arrived.

Now I don’t know what to do about this situation, as it’s human nature to want to make sure your friends know what you know, especially in an emergency. As for cutting down on the CDC emails, I understand the JICs need to blast the same information out using lots of different mediums, as that increases the likelihood that those affected will see the message, but for those of us who utilize all of those mediums, the cacophony can be deafening. It’s definitely a fine line.

Do you have a solution?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 1:00 am

    Yes, I do.

    Message granularity.

    Instead of bogging down emails with mounds of data, detail, and muddled messaging, have every PRIORITY key message sent as a single line.

    Messages go in the subject line, and nothing in the body but technical codes.

    Now your inbox is easily scannable and searchable, and the date gives you instant chronology.

    I know it sounds counter-intuitive to have MORE emails, but it reduces the need to burrow for information.

    • January 7, 2010 10:15 pm


      I think that’s a great idea. Now I just need to explain it to the folks I work with that still use 800×600 screens… and haven’t yet “got the whole MS Word thing down”… and continuously ask me what (eom) means in the subject line of my emails. =)

      Oh, and Roll Tide!

  2. hedgehog permalink
    January 7, 2010 10:06 am

    This is so important – the information overload is astounding! While I agree with the premise of Ike’s suggestion that succinct descriptions in the RE line make a huge difference, this solution doesnt take into account the overly full inbox. If you’re out in the field for the day, your inbox can get full very quickly- and my inbox has been shut down. Any messages sent to me while I was ‘too full’ are lost in the ethernet, never to be seen again.
    A very smart colleague started compiling the information into a weekly update — initially incredibly valuable. But as the information continued to increase exponentially, some weeks required 3 per week, or more. And, some updates, and needed to be issued in 4 parts because the attachments were too numerous.

    • January 7, 2010 10:20 pm

      Now the weekly update is a great idea, too. Later in the first pandemic week, someone took over that role here, too. And that’s all she ended up doing. =(

      We knew, though, to look for her emails and we could get the latest on just about everything from there, so it definitely helped. I wonder if we could have used her in a more productive manner, though.

      We had a colleague at HHS ASPR Regional office here that used to put out a daily summary of public health preparedness stories and notes that I’ve always found exceptionally useful. Unfortunately, he’s since moved on (to FEMA, or DHS, I believe) and the updates have stopped.

      Thanks for stopping by hedgehog!

  3. January 7, 2010 3:21 pm

    To me this illustrates the problem with using a system like email for distribution of information. Having central locations (eg, CDC/ASPR website dedicated to H1N1) and making sure that people know where to look seems more effective than emailing.

    If you have info you want to share, post it. If you do a limited-distribution system like email someone important will be left off, someone won’t notice the 10,000 other folks on the To: line (or it will be obscured) and “reply all”, someone will be getting bombarded with information from a system they signed up for ten years prior and forgot about because it wasn’t used and will start replying to everything with “remove me” notes…

    Moving more information to central sites will also limit the segregation of information problems that we face. In the early days of the spring H1N1 outbreak many state emergency managers/homeland security people had the “official” case counts before their health counterparts because the data was posted to HSIN (Homeland Security Information Network) by the DHS operations people as soon as they got it. The health people weren’t used to looking at HSIN and were waiting for the official CDC calls, which put them behind the curve.

    • January 7, 2010 10:32 pm

      Now this I like.

      I hadn’t heard of HSIN, though I’ll definitely have to check it out.

      I liken this situation to the kind of information overload that one gets while working in a JIC, or an EOC for that matter. Multiple streams of information coming into one location (your inbox, for example), all with varying levels of applicability and importance and many are little more than assignments for others. To combat this situation, an entire cottage industry of EOC software makers has popped up (even our good friend, the Crisisblogger) to help manage the flow.

      I have an idea that I’ve been kicking around for a few months that applies to this situation, and your solution, that I’ll have to flesh out a bit and post up here shortly. I originally thought it would work wonderfully in a JIC, but maybe it could just an incident information management tool.

      Thanks for the comment, Joel!

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