After NG911 comes the Social Media Cruncher

Graphic of Call 911Emergency Management magazine (May/June 2010) stated there are so many different standards for call takers that “it’s nearly impossible to identify specific, all-encompassing issue or problem” to create national standard.  The same article showed timeline history of 911.  In 1967, President Johnson recommended single phone number to reach Police.  In 1972, the FCC recommended that 911 be the universal emergency number.  In 1999, President Clinton designating 911 as the national emergency number.  That’s long time considering phones were stationary.  Now people are on the move.  The FCC’s National Broadband Plan includes an element to start accepting multiple methods to call in to the Next Generation system (NG911).  Details of this can be reviewed at  This is great idea but the key engine in the middle is missing.  There are more than 6,180 public safety access points (PSAPs) in the United States.  PSAP is where your 911 call gets routed to based on the location of the phone (either landline or cell) that you are at.  How will they route photo or text message that isn’t geo-located?

There are some localities that will accept text messages to their PSAP… as long as you know the email address, SMS address or other way to route it.  There are huge advantages to a PSAP system that can accept multimedia and multimode information.  Just stepping away from voice to include text will make it much easier for the deaf and hard of hearing communities to contact the police, fire or medical services.  That also helps others who cannot safely make noise because they are hiding in closet from home invasion, or kidnapped in the truck of car.  Imagine the speed to convey the situation if the caller can snap photo with their phone and email it to the PSAP.  The call taker can make judgment calls that are not biased by the caller’s state of mind.  A picture of house fire.  A video of drunk driver.  An audio recording of threatening phone call.  A text message of an address from person with thick accent.  

The foundation routing of this information from the sender to the correct PSAP is understated in the NG911 plan where the diagram shows “location acquisition” cloud.  But it is critical to the success of NG911 Situational awareness comes from more than just directly sent information.  I’ve nicknamed the engine in the middle of this mashing the “social media cruncher”. 

The NG911 system should also be able to pull any geolocated information and sort it by distance and severity.  People will take photos of fire and damage to upload to social media.  A skimmer is needed to match up tweets, posts, shouts, check-ins, pictures and video to requests for emergency assistance.  If large building fire is reported, there will be voice calls to the PSAP.  Once the emergency is noted, the system can scan common social media points for timely and local information about the situation.  A traffic accident could be reported and then reports of commuting delays and ties up could augment the information for the first-responders.  There obviously needs to be good system to parse the fluff and get to the valuable information.  

There are two more parts to this.  The outbound capability of NG911 and the lack of reported information.  Once an emergency is located, NG911 should be able to text, tweet, cell broadcast or use other social media to warn people to stay aware from the area.  It can also let people in the area know what actions to take to be safe.  Messages can be specifically directed based on ranges so it isn’t “one size fits all” mentality.  

As disaster relief technologist, the part that I’m interested in is to use social media and social networking to outline the “dark zone”.  Imagine an earthquake.  People will be tweeting about it – except in the dead center where all communications have been knocked out.  The dark zone in the middle of an earthquake will be the quickest way to perform damage assessment.  There will be heavily tweeted or posted geo-coded ring around that dark zone to show the extent of the most severe damage.  The more distance from the epicenter, the less the tweets will be reporting first-hand information.  There is so much potential in this area.  It all depends on geolocation technologies applied to social media postings.  How’s that for buzz word statement that over simplifies solution?