Dark site stores emergency communications until crisis occurs

One of the most common and useful tools in any crisis or emergency communication management strategy is a dark web site. This practice is fairly common in the private sector and has been used by larger airlines, food/beverage companies, pharmaceutical companies, and others.

By definition, a dark web site is a pre-made, non-visible web site that is activated when a crisis or emergency occurs. The site stores written-in-advance information, as the specific details of the event are added immediately before the site is activated. In a variation of private enterprise practices, and prior to the emergence of H1N1, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department (SCCPHD) had been collaborating with a team of Stanford students and their professor to develop a dark site. The initial idea was to have a dark site that would replace the department's existing web site when an emergency situation makes the current site inaccessible or impractical.

As part of the collaboration, a public health toolkit was to be developed as part of an Advanced Practice Center (APC) project. Currently, the dark site is hosted on a Google server, so that when the existing site is not accessible, viewers can be easily re-directed to the Google server. The advantages of using a dark site include the ability to post quickly changing information, the availability of an alternate site when a standard site crashes due to too many hits or a malfunctioning server, and the ease with which users can quickly select and prepare documents for uploading.

In April 2009, the SCCPHD was providing a wealth of information about the newly emerging novel H1N1 virus on its web site. When the news media began reporting on the situation in Mexico, large numbers of people began turning to the public health web site to learn more. Due to the increasing number of hits in a short period of time, the public health web site crashed. To make matters worse, the crash of the public health site brought down the entire county web portal, making any online county functions impossible.

After the public health web site crashed, the SCCPHD Public Information Officer (PIO) quickly convened a team to work on the issue. Staff from the APC Program and the Information Systems Department, working with Stanford University, were able to quickly load information relevant to H1N1 onto the dark site. Although this was the first time that public health staff used the dark site to post and provide emergency information, the dark site was ready and could be seen by the public within hours. SCCPHD was then able to re-direct viewers from its standard, non-functional web site to the dark site.

SCCPHD's dark site was designed minimally, consisting mainly of lists of hyperlinks to take users to relevant information. This minimal design helped users find emergency information, since they were not distracted by the wealth of different topics, navigation channels and other visuals present on the day-to-day public health site. Using Google to house the dark site meant that SCCPHD's content and data were hosted on redundant servers, which can be beneficial in any emergency that damages infrastructure. The service was also free of cost, could be accessed easily by anyone with a web browser, and provided significantly higher bandwidth than the county web server, meaning that large numbers of hits would not cause the web site to malfunction. The emergency dark site also provided public health staff with tools and ease of use they needed to communicate critical information to the public quickly.

SCCPHD was able to coordinate the dark site from their Joint Information Center, making management of the site consistent with a NIMS-compliant work flow process. SCCPHD offered a number of suggestions based on experience that can help other agencies develop their own dark sites. The first step involves recruiting a team that will manage content on the dark site, usually preparedness staff and the health department PIO. Responsibilities for this team should include determining policies for developing and updating content on the dark site and choosing criteria for when the site will be activated and made visible to the public.

The second step involves recruiting a technical team that will manage the networks between the dark site and the standard site. Responsibilities for this team should include determining sharing controls (e.g., which public health staff are allowed access to manage the dark site), choosing domain names, maintaining the public health listserv of subscribers, and ensuring that the dark site is translated into languages other than English if necessary.

The dark site proved easy to use and manage for SCCPHD staff. Planners could update information or upload new pages from any computer connected to the Internet. Static content could be uploaded first to the site, and this included any information that would not change through the course of the emergency (e.g., pre-developed fact sheets, contact information for the health department, and templates for press releases and health alerts). Dynamic content that required constant updating included CDC guidelines, alerts on school closures, information about medical aid and clinics, and links to external sources of information.

The Google Site's dark site template also includes a built-in automatic translator that can translate text into 52 languages. While public health staff acknowledge that the automatic translator does not always translate information perfectly, they have used it to translate certain pages. The optimal solution to translation would be asking people who are knowledgeable about a particular language or culture to create and/or edit materials. In an emergency situation, however, the automatic translator and potentially some editing by multilingual public health staff is a reasonable alternative and can provide a good start to the difficult chore of translation under extenuating circumstances.

Through some pre-planning and hard work on the part of SCCPHD's communication team, the agency had an alternative option of providing emergency information when their web site could no longer function. The bare-bones approach to building and maintaining a dark site also enabled members of the public to easily view and navigate to the information they critically needed during spring 2009. As a result of the successful use of Google Sites by the SCCPHD, several months later in the fall of 2009 Google created a template which is maintained in the Google Sites Library titled, "Public Health Emergency Template" that public health agencies can use to easily create their own dark site. This template was modeled after the H1N1 dark site used by the SCCPHD.

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