The Use of Technology for Emergency Response – This article originally appeared in the March 7th 2011 edition of The Hindu BusinessLine:
On 22 February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand. It propagated from the Lyttleton harbour, which is the main port in the city and the epicentre was closer to the Central Business District than its predecessor on September 4th, 2010, which was a magnitude 7.1. Minutes after the earthquake, our power lines and water supply stopped working. For those that had a battery operated radio, news of the unfolding disaster was still available, minus images on television. For others like me, with an MP3 player that could also get on radio, we were limited by the battery-life of the player itself. Most emergency lines were jammed for first few hours following the disaster as people came to terms with what had happened, the news spread and calls poured in to establish the safety of loved ones. In the week following February 22nd, we were stranded in Christchurch with dying cell phones and no access to basic human necessities including water and sewage. Information about the location of hot food, portable chemical toilets, drinking water, first-aid services and medical supplies were not propagating quickly enough to reach us, as we were living in one of the worst-hit suburbs in the city. Calling emergency services, the power company, the Red Cross and other groups with toll-free lines lead to massive confusion on when they expected the services to be up. The law and order situation was one of concern to us, being foreigners, trapped in a dark house, with cumulative loss of sleep when most neighbours had left to be with friends in safer places.
Through the whole time, what struck me as most odd was not one mass-SMS was sent to inform citizens about where they could access resources. The use of technology in times of disaster can be very crucial, especially when considering human density in places like India where the loss of life in natural disasters is huge. I had been through one other emergency such as this one, when I was a graduate student in September 2001. I was in college in Raleigh, NC which was a good ten hour drive from New York, however, the memories of that night with parents of many friends calling me from India, when they couldn’t reach their children will never leave me. In terms of co-location, for the parents of my friends in India, I was the closest to the emergency. Both natural disasters and emergencies, especially ones that lead to massive loss of lives bear inspection in terms of how to utilize technology to mitigate some portions of the anxiety and uncertainty that follow such an occurrence. In this article, I explore an idea from my dissertation titled Proactive Crowd Sourcing which proposes Location Based Services in non-commercial spheres such as Emergency Response.
Most proposals for managing emergencies, except in the areas of surveillance, are reactive in nature. This curbs their effectiveness by several orders of magnitude. Crowd Sourcing is a term used to describe de-centralizing operations and trusting the work to the co-ordinated actions of a crowd. In the case of emergency management, a need of the hour is to enable more proactive solutions. Instead of an Emergency Services provider waiting until the emergency has occurred, assessing the nature of the problem and then deploying resources, if they could instead rely on citizens co-located with the emergency, the management of the emergency would become more agile and effective. Users co-located with the emergency are, arguably the best sources of information on what might be needed to mitigate the effects. Sometimes, the requirements are not intuitive and no amount of surveillance or pre and post-op training can predict the needs of the people affected by the disaster. For example, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, one of the biggest requirements that the responders fell short of was ice! <>Both E-911 and Reverse 911 fall in the category of reactive systems or approaches to the problem. In the case of Reverse 911, the biggest barrier to effectiveness is that in case of a fire in San Diego, locating all households in San Diego en masse may not be the most efficient plan of action. There might potentially be several people that have travelled to San Diego from surrounding areas or from afar and locating them is best achieved via a cell phone, rather than fixed geographical and list-based approaches.
In the February 22nd, 2011 earthquake, on day two, some of our neighbours opened up well-water from their private wells for people to fill up and use for drinking (after boiling) or doing their washing. This was a very localized service and there was no way to intimate people. Word-of-mouth did the job in this case and although wells had been declared illegal in New Zealand by the housing commission, they proved to be invaluable in the emergency especially from the perspective of elderly citizens and people with children, who couldn’t go very far to fetch water and had no information on when the trucks would reach their neighbourhoods. In this case, Proactive Crowd Sourcing might have involved Civil Defense deploying a small team of information specialists in conjunction with the Telecom companies to accept news from locals who were offering up well-water and re-sending the same as a mass SMS to citizens in the area who wanted to avail the service. This is just one of many examples for as the days went on (we stayed in Christchurch for six days after the emergency) it was pretty much down to neighbour helping neighbour with everything from well water to cooking gas to barbeque ranges to short-term generators or rides for free food that was being offered by local churches. Two websites came into play on days 5 and 6 following the earthquake, which monitored the location of twitter messages within Christchurch and tracked the locations of the aftershocks. The internet, while friendly to use and a great source of information, is limited to people with powerful/smart phones that are browser enabled, which are often not the most ubiquitous models to program for.
One of the most obvious problems that arise from allowing citizens to send messages are the unruly elements, who impersonate or send wrong information out. There were many cases reported of people impersonating earthquake victims and Urban Search and Rescue officials amongst many others. With SMS-es that citizens send to disseminate information about local services, one intuitive way to verify authenticity would be to match the location from which the SMS is sent to the location that the registered phone user (provided they consent to this) might have in the provider’s address database. The other method would be build a reputation vector around the person that is sending the message, either by checking their immediate social network (to establish cranks with brand new phones) or by polling for more information for identification and verification by Civil Defense to establish the authenticity of the sender and then send mass SMS-es to other people in the vicinity.
The notion of crowd sourcing can also extend to other aspects of emergency management. Consider a situation where two adjoining counties (or administrative domains) are involved in an emergency. In order to best handle the situation, it might be beneficial for the two counties to work in tandem to share their pool of resources and allocate resources based on the shortest path the site rather than dealing with bureaucratic limitations. This is particularly important when local citizen groups (such as neighbourhood watch patrols) have to communicate to pool resources. In the time we had to understand the magnitude of what happened on February 22nd, 2011 and grasp how the situation might unfold and make decisions about our own personal safety, the most helpful thing in the first 36 hours would have probably been an SMS, as all other modes of communication were down. Proper laws and regulations to seek cell-phone subscribers’ consent to contacting them at the time of an emergency and ensuring that any state or private organization does not compromise a citizen’s long-term safety would also be paramount to enabling such ideas.