Crisis lessons from foot and mouth

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001 caused an estimated £8 billion in losses. Some 10 million animals were destroyed to contain the disease, devastating the livelihoods of many rural communities. 

Information – or a lack of it – played a crucial role in the foot and mouth crisis, according to Dr Christine Hagar, assistant professor at the School of Information Science at San Jose State University, California. British-born Hagar has studied the impact of the epidemic in Cumbria through the lens of information sharing and dissemination. She found that the government published a lot of useful information for farmers on the web – but grossly overestimated the penetration of the Internet. “At the time, only 25% of farmers had Internet access,” she says. 

This was compounded by the political climate of the time. “There wasn’t a lot of trust in the government among the farmers following the BSE crisis that came before it,” Hagar says. 

This meant that when farmers sought information about foot and mouth disease, they looked for local, trusted sources. One of those sources was PenTalk, an informal network set up in response to the crisis (with government funding). It provided farmers with free access to computers for six months, as well as the training required to use them. 

This helped get vital information out to the community where formal government efforts had failed, Hagar says. 

Aside from the trust issue, PenTalk benefited from a charismatic and popular leader, former head teacher Ann Risman. The scheme also identified 16 farmers who could help promote it, chosen for their strong personalities and communication skills. 

For Hagar, PenTalk – which still offers 

IT training to Cumbrian farmers – demonstrates the crucial role of informal communications networks in crisis situations. 

What has changed

Even as recently as 2001, formal and informal information sharing occurred through different channels. Thanks to social media, Hagar says, that is no longer the case.

“Today, we are getting a mix of formal and the informal on the same platform, which didn’t happen before,” Hagar explains. 

That presents its own challenges. “One of the hot topics in crisis informatics is social media and information overload,” she says. “There is a very complex information environment during crises today, because there are so many actors putting out different information.”

That places a high value on trusted sources of information. “Social media has this great capacity to inform, but it also has the power to misinform.”

Now, she says, there is a role for government organisations to play in fact checking information distributed via social media in a crisis. For example, during Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Caribbean and the east coast of America last year, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up a ‘rumour control centre’ to combat misinformation. 

Still, social media is clearly a boon during a crisis, providing a shared space in which different groups can communicate. “One thing that is clear during a crisis is that people need to work together,” she says. “In the wake of the 9/11, for example, we saw public and private sector organisations and citizens all coming together.”

Clearly, though, hi-tech communications may well be out of action during a crisis. That is why Hagar, formerly a librarian herself, believes that public libraries play a crucial role: “Libraries serve as a community centre and information hub.

“At the moment, though, a lot of UK public libraries are either closing or having their hours shortened.” This could affect the resilience of our communities in the event of a crisis, Hagar warns.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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