Envisioning 911's version 2.0

Social networking concepts could apply powerfully to emergency reporting and response systems.

Writing in this week's Science, two researchers at the University of Maryland argue that 911 services would benefit from a social networking treatment, Technology Review notes.

Although dialing 911 is effective during health emergencies and home fires, when natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina strike, telephone operators are rapidly overwhelmed. In the ensuing chaos, public and private agencies are unable to coordinate their relief efforts, and individuals remain uninformed about evacuation plans and relief efforts. As the researchers envision it, community members would register in advance on their community response grid (CRG) using computers, cell phones, or any other mobile device.

Social networking could be applied to several layers of 911 services. Reporting could be decentralized, so overload of centralized resources during major emergencies wouldn't be a problem. Information dissemination becomes simple by simply exposing the information that comes into the system. Bad information would easily be outweighed by the volume of good information.

"The emergence of the Internet as a social environment led us to come up with a service where people could first report the scope of a tsunami or a wildfire or even an E. coli attack," says Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the report. ... "We think it may be helpful in advance of emergencies, during emergencies, and during rebuilding and restoration afterwards."

And actual response would be improved by giving local residents the information to lend a hand.

Murray Turoff, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says that "what most people don't seem to understand is that the real first responders in disasters are the people in the community." "All these organizations need to be able to talk laterally," he says.

And like other Web 2.0 efforts, like Widipedia, 911.gov would depend on volunteer efforts and super-users who police the system.

Jennifer Preece, an expert in human-computer interactions at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the study, says that for 911.gov to be successful, it will have to draw in volunteers from other communities and be integrated with existing social-networking sites. If the government backs the site, she says, it, too, could have the clout to draw in users. She points out that during Katrina, many people found their information by heading to local libraries. "Why did they go there? These are established and trusted communities that they know about."

And it could be more than a bright idea.

Shneiderman says, "When people hear about this [proposal], they say, 'My God, that's a clever idea; why didn't I think of it?'" He is eager to begin developing the system and will iron out any kinks as he goes. He has applied for funding through the National Science Foundation to develop a prototype that will service some 45,000 people at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. If the pilot is successful, he thinks 911.gov could be a reality in three to five years.

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