The Need for Information Networks

The pandemic of 2020 has been difficult to deal with as an immediate crisis and at the same time, it is a learning experience that can be used to make ourselves grow as a society. One of the many lessons that have to be absorbed relates to the nature of information. The COVID-19 virus does not respect geographic or organizational boundaries and that means our efforts to confront the virus have to also transcend organizational boundaries. Unfortunately, historically we have designed our infrastructure systems around organizational hierarchies and made it difficult for information to flow around these hierarchies. For example, when a hospital collects data, it does so in a way that facilitates the operation of that hospital. Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems facilitate data flows between hospitals as but only in prescribed paths that are not easily adapted to meet the needs of a crisis. Information flows have be managed in a more agile fashion if the goal is to allow data to shape our response strategy.
Lacking a coherent information architecture, emergency responders, nursing homes, public safety officials, and other critical workers have been forced to take it upon themselves to manage information flows between organizational entities. While we are thankful for the efforts of these individuals/institutions, it should not have been this difficult to develop a data-drive, coordinated response strategy. We should not be in a situation where different leaders are looking at different data or interpreting the same data differently as they establish policy.
Traditionally when people discuss infrastructure they focus on the highway system, airports, and shipyards. Only recently have been begun to consider the Internet a critical part of our infrastructure – it seems certain that our response to COVID would have been even more stunted had we not embraced this expanded definition. However, this pandemic experience calls into question whether we should push further; maybe the acceptance of data connectivity as infrastructure demonstrates an insufficient appreciation for the true need. Perhaps, information exchanges should be included in our understanding of critical infrastructure. Such information exchanges go beyond linking data producers with data consumers to provide a context to the enabled exchanges. If these information exchanges had been in place prior to the pandemic, data consumers would receive data with an understanding of what that data represents. It is that contextual information that allows simple binary data to become valued information that enables the decision making we need.