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The New Arithmetic of Disaster

By   /  February 20, 2013  /  No Comments

by Ian Rowlands

I’m going off my usual beat today. There is a connection to data and applications management, but if you feel it’s a stretch I won’t argue.

Some horrible events have occurred recently that have made me wonder if we don’t need to radically rethink our attitude to disaster. If you feel that using these tragedies as context for a blog piece is crass, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping this one – but the ideas have been nagging away at me and I really wanted to share them.

What really kicked this off was the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. More accurately, it was an interview what happened with a parent at a nearby school in the week after a 20-year old man massacred 20 children and 6 adults. The gist of what one parent said was, “I knew these things happened, but they’re so rare that it wouldn’t happen to us. Now I know that these things always happen to somebody, and next time it could just as well be us as somebody else”. That comment jolted me. Yes, disasters always affect somebody, it’s as likely to be me as anyone else, and the devastation is unthinkable. There is no arithmetic that says the probability multiplied by the cost of the outcome gives a cost of risk, and if the cost of prevention is greater, why bother.

My sense that I had been guilty of over-casual thinking in my thoughts about disasters was reinforced by another tragic event. There was a ghastly coincidence of name … In October 2012 Hurricane Sandy swept up from the Caribbean, and up through (primarily) the Mid-Atlantic and North Eastern United States. As I write this (February 2013) recovery from this event, that is reckoned to have done more than $70b in damages, is only just getting started. Insurance companies will pay out billions … but many lives will never be the same, and there are businesses that will never recover. Sometimes, paying to plan to “recover” from tragedy can never ensure recovery. Thinking about Hurricane Sandy made me think about what happened to New Orleans in late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina came on shore as a category 3 storm, devastated New Orleans when the levee system failed and ended as the most expensive natural disaster so far to affect the United States. Somehow repairing the levees had never been the top budget priority although it had become known that design flaws made failure likely. I came to realize that there were things in my life that were bound to happen sometime … and that no “economic” thinking could ever be a good reason to delay taking action.

For me, the arithmetic of disaster has changed. It’s made me think more about the way so many businesses don’t take Business Continuity Planning seriously. From minor data loss to natural disaster, survival and recovery mechanisms need to be in place. And no “probabilistic” calculation makes sense. If you mean to stay in business and keep working, you have to make this job one. From the auto company that were one server short of shutting down, to the passport authority that delivered half a million passports delivered because a system wasn’t tested, failures of contingence planning and survival thinking continue to plague even the most “advanced” I.T. organizations. Are you ready?

About the author

Ian Rowlands is ASG’s Product Marketing Manager (Data Intelligence). He heads product marketing for Metadata Management and is also tasked with providing content across ASG’s entire portfolio. Ian has also served as Vice President of ASG’s metadata product management and development teams. Before ASG, Ian served as Director of Indirect Channels for Viasoft, a leading Enterprise Application Management vendor that was later acquired by ASG and managed relationships with distributor partners outside North America. He has worked extensively in metadata management and IT systems and financial management, and presented at conferences world-wide, including DAMA and CMG.

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