Monday, 6 August 2007

Twittering In Emergencies

Also known as "Missed It By That -><- Much!," this article by John Johnston is very much a thought-provoking read. I agree - I found out about the Dallas steam explosion on Twitter, hours before websites and mainstream media got hold of it. And JJ's post helped me focus those things I'd been trying to work out, such as "what is Twitter good for?" Twitter is indeed an indication of the future of communications. But you have to think about this slightly differently.

For a starter, I found out about the Minneapolis bridge collapse on Facebook, in the form of a recently shared news item from one of the local news services, also hours before other mainstream media had that news.

Twitter also seems to place quite a strain on the hardware. If you remember, there was a period when Twitter was down as much as it was up, and the sheer volume and speed of our uptake of the service must have caught them quite unawares. Do you really want to be at the scene of an emergency, whip out the trusty WiFi PDA, and see "I'm in ur serverz makin things better"? Probably that is not a good situation to find yourself in. Just sayin'...

But Twitter is also based on RSS, and thereby hangs what would make it one of the best emergency information dissemination networks ever. Set up a server at each major emergency services centre, and let the updates flow out and in to those node servers. Base this on a good swarming algorithm, and allow RSS updates to be prioritised, i.e. keep local stuff local, if it escalates then send it to nearby or relevant other nodes. You have a service that scales with the emergency, and gives first responders a quick sitrep.

Now embroider it a bit. I'm pretty sure cellphone networks can broadcast an SMS to any cellphone within range of a tower. Make that a requirement just like having a 911 service. And then if the Fire Chief wants to evacuate anyone with a cellphone (say) around my house he could send a message "D 911|riverton102 Smoke alert around 29 Whatever St, please move to a safe distance" and everyone with a cellphone in range of riverton102 tower (or whaever cellphone providers call them) will get that.

It's a bigger emergency? Well signal nearby emergency services servers to start swapping RSS feeds with us and broadcast our message a bit further: "D 911|local Smoke and Toxic Fumes alert around 29 Whatever St, please move to a safe distance"

Meantime, the firefighters are in a group that still receives messages such as "HALP! I iz stuk in rubble under 29 Whatevs!" which I send as a reply to the message. The server can send me a stern rebuke not to use the messaging service for anything other than a true emergency, but I will pay the fine if it gets me found under the toxic rubble at 29 Whatever St...

This would provide a pretty useful system. Imagine what it could do, for example, in the case of tracking contraband across borders. An unofficial server or two that the information is "leaked" out about, for Crimestoppers type tips. "TaxiTwitter" where you can use a location code and hail a taxi.

So - there may soon be a lot of different services based on this convergence of RSS, SMS, and other as yet un-thought-of systems. Anywhere there's a need for a swarming type network that crosses system borders, that finds its way to you, and that can be "custom tuned" for senders and recipients, you could find a little lolkitty fine tuning ur serverz...

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