Geotagging Emergency Media

Media | Access/Network

When Andrew Rasiej, the co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, ran for Public Advocate of New York City in 2005, he campaigned on a novel civic idea: the city should create a service that enabled residents to report potholes using their cameraphones. He even set up the website for it. Gothamist mentioned it. Tom Friedman (whose stature as an Internet swami I've recently examined in depth) virtually gave Raisej his August 3rd column to expound upon this and similar ideas.

Unfortunately, the idea proved to be mere campaign gimmick, because the domain lapsed after February 2006, a few months after Rasiej conceded the election. Granted, following the central irony of democracy, the city did not need to elect Rasiej to make the idea happen. He already sketched it out. And, as I noted in my April 2007 article for PBS MediaShift, the FCC has been pursuing a tangential need through the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee, or CMSAAC. Its mission is to “develop recommendations on technical standards and protocols to facilitate the ability of commercial mobile service (CMS) providers to voluntarily transmit emergency alerts to their subscribers.”

The CMSAAC, which was was formed as a result of the 2006 WARN Act, has gotten virtually no coverage outside of the trade press. The only person on the committee with any web visibility is Art Botterell of Contra Costa County, California. His occasional blog posts are overshadowed by his landmark work in defining the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) XML data standard. When I interviewed Botterell over email back in April, he told me that his one disappointment with the CMSAAC was that it wasn't comprehensive enough; it was just limiting itself to cellphones. Clearly by its charter it hadn't considered the upload of information by the public.

Hmm. Wouldn't it have been fancy if such a service were already available to Southern California?

Being on the opposite corner of the country from San Diego, I was mostly concerned with the national/environmental angle over the last week. So I read Mark Glaser's piece in MediaShift on the fire coverage. What is still jarring to me as a media structures researcher is how people are still relying on what are essentially 20th-century Internet tools – weblogs and forums – to best convey information. Rebecca Coates Nee, a former TV reporter who now teaches journalism at San Diego State, blogged:

My issue is the lack of 'hyperlocal' coverage. Clearly identified links for each evacuated neighborhood would have been most helpful — even simple notations such as: Rancho Penasquitos — no damage reported. Winds expected to keep the fire heading north of the area. Carmel Mountain Ranch — no damage. Fire has stayed east of the area.

By now there are enough ideas to develop a system which would meet these needs. Here's how a mobile emergency information system should work:

  1. Take a picture with your cellphone.

  2. Your phone, since it has E911 equipped, should encode the GPS coordinates of where you are. If cellphones had a compass installed (like the Nokia 5140), it could mark the orientation.

  3. Your wireless provider should give you a list of categories. Some may be regular (property damage, traffic accident), though any current natural disaster in your area should be first on the list. You may, if you are so inclined, write a brief text message to describe it.

  4. You might also tag that this is an anonymous submission. In that case, law enforcement would need a warrant to determine your identity.

  5. One-click upload to a central clearinghouse (which could well be the wireless provider, or a partner to it). The information could be made public. It's popular for people to exclaim “Google Map!” when a geographic interface is needed, but there's other technologies for doing so. As long as wireless Internet is offered at a premium price, not every user will trouble to subscribe to it– so built-in software should be necessary for this. A user might wish to bookmark a few common address, a range, and then request the information. Wireless providers should provide this information without requiring the user to subscribe to an additional monthly service.

Now, this could be done today via Twitter, Radar, Flickr, etc., but they haven't come through on parts 2-4, which require some additional programming. The present convention is for people to add the descriptive tags once the picture is uploaded to the website – not helpful when you're snapping pictures in a disaster area. It is possible that people could write text in the messages that could resemble tagging of the event types and of the geographic coordinates, and it is further possible to employ some sort of “Mechanical Turk” system of outsourced labor to conform the tags to a standard ontology.

Without a standard protocol, we might as well wait for a single company to do it – a company that has the mapping technology, millions of user accounts, and coming soon, a mobile phone service. Google likely will do it because they're smart and they want to engineer solutions, and not hacks, to problems, and since people like Google they'll be happy for the latest feather in its cap. But a standard levels the playing field for competition and enables the past innovation of ideas.

The Knight Foundation, through the Knight News Challenge, has been seeding technology projects “for innovative ideas using digital experiments to transform community news.” (I have not applied for any grants). Five months ago, they gave Adrian Holovaty $1,100,000 to develop geotagging platform. They also gave Lisa Williams $222,000 to “make it easier for people to find hyperlocal news and information about their city or neighborhood through promotion of 'universal geotagging' in blogs.” Adrian and Lisa are great people and I wish them the best of luck. But Lisa's PlaceBlogger website has nothing on emergency communications; Adrian's EveryBlock website is still in stealth mode.

[I'm now asking all the people mentioned in this post for their ideas…]

Update, Sunday: There's a long feature on Andy Rubin, “The Main Behind the Google Phone” in the Times today. But again, no mentions of how a smartphone could be a public-emergency-phone that does more than call 911.

Update, Monday: the Google Phone strategy was announced.

A quick web search shows me that there are a few software programs that do this. Chris Heathcote reviewed these in March 2006. Whoa– that's eighteen months ago. And at that point, it didn't work with every phone. And it still doesn't. It's a shame that people who live and breathe mobile technology everyday (and I'm not one of them) didn't think, in the last 18 months, how do we get this technology to more people for emergency usage?