Student Joyce Monsees Uses Crisis Informatics Skills as an International Disaster Relief Volunteer
Joyce Monsees

When she started working on her Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree, student Joyce Monsees wasn’t sure where it would lead her. But through online volunteer work, she’s realized she can use the technology skills and information management knowledge she’s learning to make a difference on a global scale.

Monsees volunteers with Standby Task Force, a group of about 1,000 people worldwide who monitor social media, news, medical facilities and local infrastructure sites during a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. They use that information to map areas of greatest need in real time. The maps, used by the United Nations to send aid, also show the locations of hospitals, shelters, and areas with road closures and power outages.

Her latest virtual deployment came in September 2013 when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck Pakistan. Despite her part-time job as a special education instructional aide and her graduate studies, Monsees said she’s on the computer about 12 hours a day during a deployment.

She began her volunteer work around the same time she started the MLIS program in fall 2012. After hearing Dr. Christine Hagar give a lecture at a virtual conference in early 2013, Monsees was eager to complete her core classes so she could take Hagar’s new course, LIBR 281 Crisis/Disaster Health Informatics during fall 2013. The course prepares information professionals for key roles in disaster preparedness and response.

Hagar, who coined the phrase crisis informatics, is an expert on gathering and analyzing information from one disaster that will be useful in preparing for the next one, Monsees said.

“Her class is a great example of how you can take the skills you learn as an MLIS student and use them in all different occupations and professions,” Monsees said. “She’s proof to me that what we do [in the Standby Task Force] is real and it has value.”

Monsees, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from California State University-Fullerton, describes herself as “your typical MLIS student who understands how information can enhance and change your life.” But though she loved public libraries, she couldn’t see herself working in one.

So in an effort to find her niche, she began Googling all the topics that interested her – geography, weather, climate and global issues. She discovered new fields called geographical information librarianship and geospatial data librarianship. She also learned about specialized map librarians, who catalog and classify maps, and academic roles such as a librarian in a college geography department

“I thought, well, maybe that’s what I want to do, so I just kept following that trail,” she said.

The trail eventually led her to the Standby Task Force. About a year into her volunteer work, she started asking if the group had a library to keep on file all the sources it uses each time a disaster strikes. The answer was no, so about five months ago, between deployments, Monsees formed a small group that is creating bibliographies and reference pages for different countries.

“In a disaster, it takes time to find all those sources,” she said. “That’s really where I’m using my information management skills, to find information before disasters hit to make rescue and recovery faster and easier.”

Influential Classes

“I’m taking Dr. Susan Aber’s course LIBR 220 Maps and Geographic Information Systems, and her skills are helping me with the mapping part of the volunteer work. And Dr. Michael Stephens’ LIBR 287 The Hyperlinked Library course has taught me so much from the philosophy point of view, the social media point of view and the outreach point of view. He teaches a lot about social media and how librarians can use it, but I’m taking it into the crisis relief world.”

Career Tip

“If you’re willing to take your skills beyond the library and can expand your horizons, the jobs are everywhere. Every organization and company needs someone with library skills, whether they have that title or not.”

Tech Tips

“Librarians need to have at least basic mapping skills to be able to manipulate and interact with maps. That would really help them help their patrons. Also, make social media your friend. We find Skype to be invaluable. Anything where you can work asynchronously will be useful, especially when you’re working with people all over the world. If you can use those asynchronous tools, you can keep contact with people worldwide and really make things happen.”

Professional Affiliations

American Library Association and its Map & Geospatial Information Round Table

Favorite Blogs/Websites

irevolution.net, crisismappers.net, Global Disaster Alerts and Coordination System