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Sunday, January 31, 2010

National Emergency Warning System still has some way to go

Partly in response to the Victoria Bushfires in February 2009, the Federal Government late last year launched the "National Emergency Warning System" (NEWS): http://www.alp.org.au/media/1209/msag040.php . It was immediately also trialled in NSW under the name 'Emergency Alert'.

The system works by sending voice and text (SMS) messages to phones in the threatened area.

Telstra and the government are quick to point out the obvious flaw in this system, that they say will be addressed in future versions: Messages go out according to phones with their billing address in the area under threat only, which is not guaranteed to be the phones' actual location, especially in case of mobiles. Furthermore, people may be interested in areas beyond their phone's location.
To reach everyone in a certain area with an emergency message, cell broadcasts (i.e. to all mobiles that are actually in an area of interest) is a proven, working alternative. However, this is not included in the NEWS initiative. Some sources claim technical limitations.
However, when the NEWS was first used in anger, other issues emerged, as illustrated by Eric Liepin and Sally Jackson's story in The Australian. Though a relevant text message was received, and the mobile phone's billing address was the same as their property, it still did not assist Sally Jackson in determining the extent of the threat. This was for two reasons. Firstly the SMS (constrained to 160 characters) covered a very wide area (see map), too large for Ms. Jackson to determine if the threat was relevant to her. Secondly, RFS phone and web sources did not add any further information to help narrow the threat area.

This got me thinking. If you have an interest in an area that is prone to emergencies (fire, floods, tsunami), this may be for a number of reasons: you may have your home, property or business there. It may be because your kids go to school there, or you have friends/family living in the area.

The value of a National Emergency Alert system would be greatly enhanced by:

• Allowing people to 'opt-in' for alerts in certain areas (beyond their phone's billing address or location at the time)

• Adding more precise geographic locations to alerts. Granted, this is not always possible in 160 SMS characters, but people should be able to get more information using online maps or subscribing to GeoRSS feeds. By the way, GeoRSS allows the definition of a line or polygon as the area of interest (http://www.georss.org/Main_Page), not just points.

Not surprisingly, such technology and services are already available. I'm aware of four examples, though there are undoubtedly more:

• Microsoft VINE (http://www.vine.net/about.aspx) allows the definition of areas of interest, and will then allow you to send and receive alerts for that area.

• FireMash (http://mashupaustralia.org/mashups/firemash/) is one of the highly-commended winners of Mashup Australia (mashupaustralia.org). It is a real time service that analyses notices from the NSW Rural Fire Service and the community for warnings and sightings. It combines and analyses all of this information to determine the location and proximity to your house. If you are at risk, it instantly sends you a specific tweet, giving you the crucial early warning needed to stay safe.

• The Australian Early Warning Network (http://www.ewn.com.au/) has been operational for years now, and seems to be studiously ignored by the authorities, despite being robust and effective in delivering a host of warning types to defined areas of interest.

• Indji Watch (http://www.indji.net/) is an online hazard monitoring system that analyses risk data against asset locations in real-time. It's a B2B, rather than consumer oriented application that applies sophisticated spatial business rules to determine if and when an alert needs to be issued, and to whom.

Two relevant findings that came out of the Emergency 2.0 project are: (1) in a Web2.0 enabled society, the community expects warnings that are relevant and personalised, and (2) Agencies need to make emergency information available as standards-based web-services, so that 3rd party (niche-) operators can provide such relevant & personalised services.
It seems that the $15 million NEWS system still has some way to go towards achieving this.


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  2. One year later, and NEWS is still heralded as a success by the authorities, though being a complete failture on the ground, certainly not something to rely on.

    Emergency SMS messages reached residents 6 hours after floods struck! See http://bit.ly/fcqGsd