Tag Archives: crisis response

Emerging Technological Responses in Emergency Management Systems

The advent of discourses around the ‘smart city’, big data, open data, urban analytics, the introduction of ‘smarter technology’ within cities, the  sharing of real-time information, and the emergence of social media platforms has had a number of outcomes on emergency services worldwide. Together they provide opportunities and promises for emergency services regarding efficiency, community engagement and better real-time coordination.  Thus, we are seeing a growth in technologically based emergency response. However, such developments are also riddled with broad concerns, ranging from privacy, ethics, reliability, accessibility, staff reluctance and fear.

This post considers one recent technological push for the re-invention of the emergency call system (911bot) and another for the sharing of real-time information during a major event (Smartphone Terror Alert).


In recent years, there has been a significant move away from voice calls towards texting and internet based platforms (eg.WhatsApp and Twitter)(see figure 1), this is tracked regularly by the International Smartphone Mobility Report conducted across 12 countries by the data tracking company Infomate. In 2015, they found that in America the average time spent on voice calls was 6 minutes as opposed to 26 minutes texting, and worldwide,  internet based platforms were the main form of communication (Infomate, 2015 and Shrapshire, 2015).


cell phone communication

Figure 1: Cell phone Communication. Source: Russell (2015).

In light of this, there is a push by both the private sector and entrepreneurs to utilise mobile phones and  social media platforms in new ways such as within the emergency call system. Within my own field research, I have questioned first responders in Ireland and the US regarding the use of social media and apps as alternative means to the current telephone system.  For the most part, this was met with disdain and confusion from first responders.  Strong arguments were made against a move away from a call-dominated response system. These included:

a)      Difficulty in obtaining relevant and accurate information regarding the event, including changing conditions and situations.

b)      Not able to provide the victim or caller with accurate instructions and information.

c)      Restrictions in contacting the caller.

d)     The system would need an overhaul for it to work, i.e. a dedicated team ensuring that these messages are not missed, and require staff training.

e)      Call systems are established mechanisms for contacting the emergency services, why change it when it works?

f)       If you use something like Twitter or Facebook to report an emergency how do we ensure that it is reported correctly and not just tweeted or messaged to an interface which is not monitored 24/7?

And as can be seen through the following conversation with two operational first responders in Dublin, Ireland, they want new technology but are also highly hesitant as to its ability to ensure a quick response.

Conversation between researcher and two first responders

R1: See the problem with a tweet and a text, I can’t get any information out of that, like I could tweet and back and then you are waiting for them to send something back, when I have you on the phone, I can question you, “What is it?”, “What is wrong?”, “What is the problem?”.

R2: If you did go with something like [social media platform for emergency call intake], you would have to have the likes of, if you are the tweet man then you would have to be 100% on the phone looking at it

R2: It probably would work if it wasn’t an emergency as such, not a full emergency

R1: I think people need tobe re-assured that someone has seen it and really knows what is happening.

R1: Jesus you could have everyone tweeting saying I have a sore stomach and that would register as a call for us so the calls would just get worse and worse. […] I think if you ring Domino Pizza now, it will know who you are, where you are and your order

R2: They can read the caller ID coming

R1:We haven’t got that

All of these are understandable concerns, but they also illustrate a resistance to innovative change that may result in cultural and institutional change which they oppose due to highly legitimate fears of effectiveness and reliability. Even so, they are welcoming of technology which has obvious benefits for them such as the “Domino’s Pizza” caller ID system, but are more reluctant towards innovations such as the 911bot whose value is overshadowed by fears of inefficiency, information gaps and reliability. However, the 911bot does potentially address some of these issues within its design.

The 911bot (figure 2) was developed during TechCrunch’s Disrupt Hackathon in New York in 2016.  It works through Facebook Messenger, which had a reported 1 billion users in July 2016 (Costine, 2016), to allow users to report an emergency.  Initially, one would be forgiven for immediately thinking of the arguments made against a transformation of the current system as presented above. However, the messenger app already offers location services based on the phones GPS thus, when reporting an incident, your exact location is immediately sent (although you can turn off your GPS signal and restrict your location being sent, when using this bot there is potential for that to be overridden).  The person reporting the incident can also send pictures or videos and the bot can provide information on what you should and shouldn’t do in that situation such as, how to do CPR during a cardiac arrest (Westlake, 2016).

Further, this bot has potential to feedback the location of the first responders to the reporter. It provides the control room with more accurate information coming from real-time videos and pictures meaning that they are not relying wholly on information from untrained and scared people.  And, most importantly, this system doesn’t take away from the control room interacting with the caller. From the information provided by the developers, it appears that once the messenger sends the request, the control room calls the phone and resumes their role but with more information.   Possibly, going forward this could even be done through Facetime so that the control room has live interaction with the event prior to the arrival of the first responders.  Although, the 911bot has only been developed and not deployed, in time and after much consultation and experimentation, it could prove very beneficial within emergency response.  For instance, if the control room operator can actually see how the person is conducting CPR, can see and hear their breathing, see the extent of the injury, fire, or road traffic collision in real time, it would inform decision-making that could create better and more efficient responses.  However, it would be remiss to discuss this without noting that there are potential privacy issues with the mass use of this type of technology outside of the remit of this post, that would need to be considered.


Figure 2: 911bot. Source: 911bot online.

Smartphone Terror Alert

Another new use of mobile technology was the mass terror alert issued on September 17th 2016, after Chelsea, Manhattan was hit with an explosion.  The alert (figure 3) was issued by the Office of Emergency Management, New York Police Department and the FBI through all phone networks. It was received by an unknown number of people and provided information about the key suspect – Ahmed Khan Rahami.  The Press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that it was the first use of this alert at a “mass scale” and as the suspect was caught within 3 hours, it presented the appearance that this alert was effective, with New York’s Police Commissioner stating “it was the future”(Fiegerman, 2016). Yet there is no evidence that the alert had anything to do with the catching of the suspect; these two factors could be circumstantial.


Figure 3: Smart phone terror Alert. Source: published in Fiegerman (2016).

Further, as illustrated by Anil Dash in Fiegerman (2016) how effective was it actually?  “Is there evidence that low-information untargeted push notifications help with any kind of crime? Seems they’re more optimised for panic”.  This is compounded by the lack of an all-clear alert, which would work to ease tensions and potential panic.  We live in a socially constructed risk society (Beck, 1992; 2009) and with innovations such as this, even if the intention is good, the potential for mass panic is created, which raises questions regarding the appropriateness of this mechanism. In this instance, sending an alert with little information, using just a name, makes everyone who could fit that name a potential target, and is an action that could create panic, fear and racial attacks under the illusion of “citizen arrest”.  However, this system has potential especially if it were utilised during severe weather events to provide information on evacuation centres and resources rather than during more sensitive events such as a manhunt.  Essentially, though, before it can be deemed thoroughly effective and safe there needs to be stringent supportive policy and agency and community training to ensure that response from agencies as well as communities is coordinated and effective rather than panicked and uninformed. So, I wonder, is this really the future, and indeed, does it need to be the future? Is it already the present with no sense of reflection on the potential consequences of such a system by the lead federal and local emergency agencies and institutions?  I don’t have the answers to these questions but examining the operational use of this alert even, at its small scale of use, provides opportunities to begin to tease out the danger of a dichotomy between effectiveness and panic and to explore issues around privacy, fear, reliability and usefulness.

In conclusion, this post has provided two different innovations within emergency management, one being experimented with and one which has been implemented. But what is clear is that changes in how we engage with control centres and emergency services are taking place, albeit slowly. But, one can only hope, especially in relation to the alert system, that lobbied criticisms will be engaged with and solutions sought.


911bot (2016) 911bot. [Online]. Available at: http://www.911bot.online/) (Accessed 9th November 2016).

Beck, U., (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

Beck, U., (2009). World of Risk. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Costine, J. (2016) How Facebook Messenger clawed its way to 1 billion users. [Online].  Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2016/07/20/one-billion-messengers/ (Accessed 8th November 2016).

Fiegerman, S.(2016) The story behind the Smartphone Terror Alert in NYC. [Online].  Available at: http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/19/technology/chelsea-explosion-emergency-alert/ (Accessed 9th November 2016).

Infomate (2015) The International Smartphone Mobility Report [Online]. Available for download at: the International Smartphone Mobility Report (Accessed 7th November 2016).

Russell, D. (2015) We just don’t speak anymore. But we’re ‘talking’ more than ever. [Online].  Available at: http://attentiv.com/we-dont-speak/ (Accessed 9th November 2016).

Shropshire, C. (2015) Americans prefer texting to talking, report says. Chicago Tribune [Online].  Available at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-americans-texting-00327-biz-20150326-story.html (Accessed 9th November 2016).

Westlake, A. (2016) Finally, there’s a chat bot for calling 911. [Online].  Available at: http://www.slashgear.com/finally-theres-a-chat-bot-for-calling-911-08439211/ (Accessed 7th November 2016).


Code and the City workshop videos: Session 2

Following up from last week’s videos, we are now into our second session of the Code and the City Workshop!

Session 2: Code and mobility

Moving applications: A multilayered approach to mobile computing
Jim Merricks White, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Mobile computing plays an increasingly important role in the way that space is experienced in the city. This has political consequences, both at the micro level of everyday production and consumption, and at the macro level of institutional and political economy. While geographers have explored the ontological role which might be played by hardware, software, data and mapping within this spatial paradigm, there remains little concerted effort to explore mobile computing as a technological system which incorporates all of these socio-technical assemblages. By drawing on adjacent disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and media and communication studies, this essay proposes a multilayered model for such a holistic inquiry: hardware—software—data(base)—GUI (graphical user interface).

By applying this model to a self-reflexive exploration of the taxi service Hailo and the mobility tracking application Moves, I attempt to demonstrate how it might be put to work as a heuristic tool. Following on from my desire to expose and explore the politics of mobile computing, the model is used to draw attention to the networks of power which make up these mobile computing services.

Digital urbanism in crises: A hopeful monster?
Monika Büscher, With Michael Liegl, Katrina Petersen, Mobilities.Lab, Lancaster University, UK

Intersecting mobilities of data, people and resources are an integral part of a new digital urbanism. Thrift speaks of Lifeworld.Inc, a new entertainment-security sector driven contexture where people’s everyday activities, movements, physiological data, thoughts, desires and fears are so richly documented in real time that commercial enterprise as well as urban services (transport, energy, security) can dynamically anticipate and shape them ‘just-in-time’ (2011). While this opens up novel opportunities for more efficiency, comfort, and sustainability in networked urban mobilities, it also provides new leverage for mobilizing disaster response. In a ‘century of disasters’ (eScience 2012), where urbanization has increased vulnerability and climate change contributes to increased frequency and severity of disasters, this opens up a perspicuous site for investigations of post-human practices, phenomenologies and ethics. Big data analytics and information sharing for risk prevention and disaster response can exacerbate the unprecedented surveillance contemporary societies practice (Harding 2014), Kafka-eske transformations of privacy and civil liberties (Solove 2004) and a splintering urbanism (Graham & Marvin 2001). At the heart of these transformations is a digital phenomenology of invisibility, immateriality and ‘intelligence’ that does not lend itself to human control. ‘Smart cities’ may depend on smart citizens (Greenfield 2013), but the technologies contemporary societies produce do not support human intelligence. We report from ‘inside the belly of the beast’ of innovation in mobilizing Lifeworld.Inc data for disaster response (Balka 2006). Drawing on experience from collaborative research and design projects (e.g. http://www.bridgeproject.eu/en), we discuss the relationship between lived cyborg practice, phenomenology and ethics in networked urban mobilities. Using a disaster perspective for a disclosive ethical investigation (Introna 2007) does disclose some potentially disastrous transformations, but it also highlights avenues for alternative, radically careful as well as carefully radical design (Latour 2009).

Abstract urbanism
Matthew Fuller and Graham Harwood, Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths

The urban riots of the USA in the late 1960s were some of the most powerful political events of that era. As well as drawing numerous responses from media, the civil rights movement, black nationalists, and groups such as the Situationist International, the uprising also triggered a range of research responses including some of the first computational models of cities. T.C. Schelling’s “Models of Segregation” attempted to provide a logical model for racial segregation and laid much of the groundwork for what later became agent-based modeling. Such work is expressed contemporarily for instance in the riot and insurgency modeling of J.M. Epstein and others. For the state, such events mark a schizophrenic relationship to the contingency of riot and how the algorithms play out in such a scenario. How can it govern events that both demonstrate and excite its power and also undermine it? This paper will propose a tracing of the genealogy of such models alongside a reading of other ways of using urban modeling in relation to the urban riots of that era and now. A parrallel reference point here will be the work of W. Bunge a quantitative geographer and spatial theorist. Bunge consistently argued that geometrical patterns and morphological laws express disadvantage and injustice under contemporary capitalism, and that identified patterns could be remedied by rational methods.

The history of computing, from G.W. Leibniz onwards, tangles with the problematic of developing rational approaches to complex, multi-dimensional problems with a high-degree of what J. Law describes as “messiness”. This paper will examine the ways in which rationality, or ratio, is positioned in relation to urban conflict as a means of discussing the relations between the city and software. The paper will develop a discussion of ratio in relation to questions of abstraction, reduction and empiricism. We are especially concerned to find a relationship between abstraction and the empirical that, by working with the materiality of computational systems recognises, and perhaps works with, the tendency to reduction(ism) but through which modes of abstraction may also work with the highly and complexly empirical.