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Ethnography of Tsunami Infrastructure


Monday, November 26, 2012 by

I decided to examine the infrastructure of tsunami warning system in Hawaii (Maui) from the view of Star’s analytical framework. Usually the user online interacts with the system only when a tsunami warning sounds to alert residents of the danger of a tsunami. However the networks and process of monitoring and communicating this warning exhibit many of the characteristics that Star attributes to infrastructure:

It is embedded inside other structures and technologies and it is relational (Star, 1999, p. 389)- the siren is prompted by organizations which monitor storm conditions such as the National weather service- Pacific Tsunami Warning centre (, retrived November 26, 2012.)

It has reach beyond a single event (Star, 1999)- as it set up to respond to multiple tsunami warnings.

It has links with conventions of practice (Star, 1999)- it promotes conventional behaviour in response to the warning and it is learned as part of membership.

The siren communicates a warning, but the correct response to this warning is unfamiliar to the non-member. When I went to Hawaii two years ago, Tsunami warnings went off, and while the meaning of the siren was apparent, the subsequent response was not. Through this experience, I had to learn about the various networks which provided information and the lack of centralized- specific information made it difficult to find clear directions to follow. Non-members become members when interactions with infrastructure becomes naturalized (Bowker & Star, 1999.)

Infrastructure becomes apparent when it breaks down (Star & Bowker, 1999.) An example of this was trying to ascertain who on the island needed to evacuate: a complicated map system and criterion based on distances/height from the water made it difficult to decide whether we personally needed to evacuate. When the system didn’t work, instead we relied on word of mouth from locals (or members) to make a decision about the appropriate response to the tsunami warning

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