Crisis/Disaster Health Informatics Course Addresses Misinformation and Pandemic Preparedness


The School of Information at San José State University first offered INFO 281 Seminar in Contemporary Issues: Crisis/Disaster Health Informatics in 2012. The course, popular with students of the Master of Library and Information Science and Master of Science in Informatics programs, explores the interconnectedness of information, people and technologies in a crisis or disaster (e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes, and pandemics), and the intersecting trajectories of social, technical and information perspectives in crises/disasters.

“I was a student the first semester you offered ‘Crisis Informatics’ at SJSU. I have thought of the course often during the last month and have gone back to retrieve some of the materials we read. Obviously, very prescient now.” – Tom Dailey, ’14 MLIS

In particular, it examines how information is generated, accessed, organized, coordinated, and disseminated during a crisis or disaster. The course also explores the multiple roles information professionals and libraries can play in preparedness and response.

Professor Emerita at the iSchool Dr. Christine Hagar, who “co-coined” the term “crisis informatics” with Dr. Leysia Palen at University of Colorado at Boulder, said she first designed the course when she was on the faculty at Dominican University, School of Information Studies, in 2008.

“The content is constantly revised. It is an exciting, inter-disciplinary field that examines the intersecting trajectories of social, technical and information perspectives in crises,” she said.

As part of the curriculum, students in Hagar’s INFO 281 class are required to give an information perspective response to Contagion, a movie about a global pandemic that was released in 2011. “By analyzing this movie, students have reflected on the various information perspectives concerning a pandemic, considered preparedness plans and response initiatives,” said Hagar.

In discussion forums, students talked about questions such as:  What do you see as the major information challenges in tracking the spread of a pandemic? How can public libraries prepare for and respond to a pandemic? When a library needs to close due to a pandemic, what strategies/ services/ activities could be implemented?

Alongside Contagion’s eerily prescient depiction of a dangerous infectious disease spreading globally, one of its major themes is misinformation.

“We are currently experiencing and fighting an infodemic,” said Hagar, echoing the remarks of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, who acknowledged that misinformation and rumors about COVID-19 are causing confusion and uncertainty, while obstructing an effective public health response.

Jessica Fibelstrad, a student in the iSchool’s MLIS program took INFO 281 with Hagar in the fall of 2019. “It was a privilege to learn from an expert in the field,” she said, remarking how “incredible” it is “that so many of the events discussed [in class] are happening right now.”

“Seeing the real-life response of libraries to the pandemic has been satisfying and not so surprising after reading so many emergency plans, including the American Library Association’s,” Fibelstrad said. She acknowledged that while other natural disasters covered in the course (e.g., weather, earthquakes, floods, etc.) are also important, studies of outbreaks “feel kind of scary. But knowledge is power,” she stressed, adding, “I’m a little less afraid.”  

Hagar, whose research focuses on information needs and information seeking in crises, disaster health information, and roles for information professionals in crisis preparedness and recovery, holds a PhD in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. INFO 281 Seminar in Contemporary Issues: Crisis/Disaster Health Informatics will be offered again in the fall 2020 semester. iSchool students are encouraged to review the course syllabus.