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The Oroville Dam: Our Systems Should Not Wait for Crisis


At 770 feet (235 m) high, the Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the U.S….The dam impounds Lake Oroville, the second largest man-made lake in the state of California.1

In February 2017, a severe crisis caused the evacuation of 200,000 people downstream—the latest of several crises that have happened since operations began in 1968. There are lots of documents and commentary on the general Internet and, no doubt, vast amounts of material locked away in servers or file cabinets covering planning, watershed issues, and emergency preparedness.

A story in The Atlantic states, “Dam operators can’t control the weather, but they can try to prepare for unexpected events like the sudden inundation of Lake Oroville with consistent maintenance. One question in this case is whether the Oroville Dam has been adequately maintained……..As for the primary spillway, the state did some repair work around the area of the collapse in 2013, CBS Sacramento reports. The last state inspection was in July 2015, but workers did not closely inspect the concrete, the Redding Record Searchlight notes, instead eyeing it from a distance and concluding it was safe. Officials say repairs should cost $100 million to $200 million, once it’s dry enough to begin them. 2

After a search, we turned up a picture of the projected flooding of the Feather and Sacramento River basins should the Oroville Dam fail. State and local officials, public safety, and key California Water Project personnel should have lots of information organized and easily accessible to do their day-to-day jobs—much less in a crisis. It should have overlays of municipal boundaries, traffic patterns, key personnel, and hazardous sites that need to be managed on a “need-to-know” basis.

The Oroville Dam may be the most urgent case in the country at this moment—it’s not often that nearly 200,000 people are forced to evacuate—but it’s hardly alone. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers……gave the U.S. a ‘D’ for maintenance of dams.2

Organizations balance three strategic goals: near-term results, long-term viability, and ability to respond to crisis. Systems must be in place that are ready to support action in all three strategic areas: efficiency for results, prescriptive for strategy, and nimble for response and escalation. We coined the phrase Situation Rooms to describe this information strategy. Methods of information display must follow five major points to fit these three strategies:

  1. The ability to expand across divisions, organizations, and even borders to show secure analyses to key personnel.
  2. Ease to grant access: a pure, browser-based environment.
  3. Persistent, true collaboration where groups and individuals can contact, communicate, and share analyses onscreen in real time with high security—key in a crisis.
  4. Some problems need to join real-time or local user feeds with stored data to provide immediate action if that is needed; as examples, network threats, business anomalies, and intrusion events are serious issues where seconds may count.
  5. Most stories need pictures and history to tell them correctly. Joins analytics with geography, images, and videos into flows as needed to help focus or explain the analysis in real time. Document and object versions preserve history.

Companies are changing so rapidly that there is no longer a fixed model for analysis. The story is often being formulated as it happens.

IT can no longer just support a story with separate Business Intelligence, Content Management, and File Archives—it must enable the story with in-context problem solving solutions, then keep the story updated over time by keeping the analyses and associated objects current for authorized personnel.