Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Butt-Dialing: What if it had been a Real Emergency Response?

The occasional ‘butt-dial’ usually brings forth a sense of confusion or awkwardness, but for one man it brought a SWAT team to his place of work. On January 4, 2011 a woman received a call from her husband around 5:00 PM. Instead of hearing his voice, the woman was greeted with muffled sounds paired with rap music. Alarmed, the woman reported what she somehow assumed was a hostage situation to 911. Unknown to her and the police force, the man had actually accidentally ‘butt-dialed’ her while driving. Within a short period of time, thirty members of the Lake County SWAT team arrived at Carlton Washburne School in Winnetka, IL. After searching the school, the SWAT team discovered that there was in fact no hostage situation.

While this couple was lucky with a false alarm, it doesn’t always end up this fortunate for those in a real-life crisis. Social media has moved far from the Facebook status update about your New Year’s Eve plans and has become a life-saving device for disaster victims. For example, those affected by the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti were able to communicate to loved ones. “Phones are working somewhat in Haiti. Can't get a hold of my family though," was one post Tweeted among the many others.

As we continue to utilize the benefits of instant communication, more and more people believe in the power – which is both positive, but a serious challenge to emergency response organizations like the Red Cross. In an online survey of 1,058 adults conducted for the American Red Cross found that if they needed help and couldn’t reach 9-1-1, one in five would try to contact responders through digital platforms (such as email, websites or social media). Further, a high percentage of 74 expected help to arrive less than one hour after their tweet or Facebook post. As the rate of socialization increases, the time frame for emergency workers to respond decreases.

The Red Cross held an Emergency Social Data Summit last August to discuss the reality of the public expectations when it comes to using social media as a form of emergency response.

The following questions were asked and are still being discussed:
  • What can we do to prepare in advance of a crisis?
  • Who should have custody of social data? How should it be used?
  • Can we codify a solution?
  • What about issues of accessibility?
  • How do we avoid a duplication of effort?
  • What is the best way to authenticate requests?
  • How do we manage citizen expectations for response?

What do you think - would you use a traditional phone call or social media to find help during a crisis? Have an opinion? Be sure to join the online discussion by using the Twitter hashtag #CrisisData .

Posted by David Roth, Katie Wilkes & Lauren Snyder

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