Wired Story – Reinventing 911

Many months ago, I published a short piece in Wired about the NIST report on the evacuation of the World Trade Center. I was a fan of the NIST report. However, several readers criticized my piece for proposing a moral that was too glib. (The moral was: disobey authority.) These criticisms were fair, and I promised a later story for Wired that would offer a more detailed look at the logic of disaster response. That story: Reinventing 911 is out this week.

The phrase Reinventing 911 is somewhat misleading. I have nothing to say about new technologies that might get police, fire, or emergency personal to your house faster when you dial these magic numbers on your phone. Instead, I write about a way to use the 911 technology for a different purpose. In Portland, Oregon, 911 calls are becoming the raw material of a public warning system. The records of these calls are pumped into a database, reformatted to fit a widely accepted standard, and made available for transmission to almost any common electronic device: phone, computer, PDA, etc. Since the call records are tagged with geographical coordinates, users can filter their warnings very precisely. A fire on your block? A dog causing a traffic tie-up at your freeway entrance? A terrorist attack creating a plume of toxic smoke? The very first announcement of such events will probably be a call to 911; after that, you might get the news before the news gets it.

‘Might’ is an important word in this scenario. The system already in use in Portland is complex. Not complex technologically (no new computer science is involved), but complex socially. The warnings are not broadcast generally, but instead go out through invitation-only networks. Like a charcoal rubbing that shows the pattern of a relief, the system exposes the region’s real security infrastructure, a previously hidden tangle of private and public groups. Nearly everybody is touched by these networks, but the route of its messages remains unpredictable.

Wired offered a truly generous amount of space for the story – inevitably, though, some very interesting things got left out. I’m reactivating this site to share some of the related material, and also to publish and discuss some of the responses. Please comment via email. (gary – a – aether – dot – com.)

Here are links to the main projects I discuss:

Connect & Protect
Common Alerting Protocol

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