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Online 911 system proposed

Could social networking be used to help during disasters?

By Heather Havenstein
February 21, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Researchers from the University of Maryland have proposed the development of the social networking equivalent of a 911 call center, where users could post information during a disaster and respond offline to the needs of their neighbors during a flood, heat wave or other emergency event.

Professors Ben Shneiderman and Jennifer Preece outlined their research around creating a network of 911.gov sites that could be linked as a "community response grid" in last week's Science magazine.

The concept of social networking could allow users to post text or photos during a disaster and also could provide local emergency responders with an outlet to quickly notify residents of potential danger and advise them on the next steps to take, Shneiderman said. The research paper proposes that trained volunteers operate the social networking site, which would be linked with local emergency agencies such as fire and police departments.

Shneiderman came up with the idea of using the Internet to supplement the 6,100 911 centers now in operation when he searched for 911 resources on the Internet last year and found no way for citizens to report emergency information online.

"The phone system functions very well for heart attacks or accidents ... but when you have major events like a flood, an ice storm or a terrorist attack, then the small number of people answering those phones can't handle those calls," he said. "The Internet is more scalable. If you are in or near an area where there are floods, hurricanes or an E. coli outbreak ... you might report an incident that would be useful to others."

Hurricane Katrina is an example of where this type of community-based effort might have been helpful, Shneiderman said. If people had been able to communicate online to find ways to get out of the city, more of them might have been able to evacuate, he said. In addition, some deaths from past heat waves in the U.S. and France might have been avoided if neighbors had a way to organize methods for checking on the elderly or others who could be vulnerable.

Shneiderman said the site could put a digital spin on the American tradition of neighbors helping neighbors. For example, he noted that 7 million people have registered to receive "Amber Alerts," notices to citizens about what or who to be on the look out for when a child goes missing.

"There are certain members of the community who care about issues and are ready to get involved when things are happening," Shneiderman said. "There is also good evidence that shows ... that these kind of electronic networks can generate local action and local engagement that continues offline."

Shneiderman, who has asked the National Science Foundation for money to test the 911.gov concept on the University of Maryland campus, noted that such a project would have obstacles, such as warding off hoaxes and building an environment of trust where people would ask for and offer assistance to one another.

Read more about Disaster Recovery in Computerworld's Disaster Recovery Topic Center.



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