Crisis informatics skills get tested in dramatic simulation

It’s an eerie sight – even for a lab class. 

Faces bearing urgent expressions lean over maps illuminated by cell phones, the only source of light in the pitch-dark room. Three people lie “injured” on the floor, huddled in simulated pain. Meanwhile, 12 people debate in hushed tones about when to send someone to headquarters through the hole in the roof.

There is no radio contact, television or other communication. All of that went when this fictional nonprofit group’s safe house, located in a civil war-torn country, was hit by cross-fire. The group has just 12 hours of supplies, 12 hours to try to get to those headquarters for help – and to answer a litany of questions:

Who’s missing? Who needs medical help? How do we get out of here? What’s it like outside right now – are there downed power lines? Guys with guns? Who do we call? And how?

Time to panic? Not exactly. This group – all students in the Crisis Informatics (SI 537) class at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) – was actually in a basement room in the North Quad building, as safe as can be.

But this final, year-end Immersion Lab was a simulation that modeled a disaster scenario, demonstrating some of the things students learned in the course, says Edward Happ, UMSI Executive Fellow, research investigator and instructor. “The simulation enabled students to assess a situation and solve problems when their a-list of technologies is not available.”

Happ outlines the conditions for the group, kills the lights and plays on a big screen the D-Day beach invasion scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan at full-blast volume. It’s an effective choice for adding a sense of chaos and desperation.

The students have just 60 minutes to complete their mission – and, btw, complete the class.

Posted January 3, 2018