9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So Much Data! Collecting & Using Information from the Mobile Environment

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2009
Written by George S. Rice, Jr.; APCO's Executive Director

Professionals in the field of public safety communications have a keen understanding of the value of mobile communications and, to be sure, many of the perils. To the latter of these points, the issue of location accuracy for emergency calling from mobile devices, for example, has been a major concern as cellular telephones migrated over the past three decades from curiosities to luxuries and on to day-to-day commodities. The value represented by these devices continues to unfold as new applications are developed and additional capabilities are explored and implemented. The cycle then returns to an examination of the perils yet again, as public safety agencies address often unforeseen difficulties associated with advanced functionality delivered to the public by these devices. And the cycle repeats...

Voice Vs. Data

Voice transmissions carried by mobile devices were traditionally the primary focus of functionality for mobile communications. Obviously, in more recent years, e-mail, text, data and video have been more equal partners in the arena of mobile communications capabilities, launching even more applications and creating additional concerns. Placing the issue of non-voice information distributed to a communications center aside for the moment - which has its own potential pitfalls - let's examine the subject of data collection itself.

The proliferation of mobile communications devices throughout our society has been the impetus for myriad considerations regarding their collective use as information-gathering tools. Obviously, any data pushed from one point to another will have had a moment in time when it was gleaned from a public or private domain. Based on laws, agreements, regulations and even national security, a monumental amount of data can be, and often is, passively or deliberately collected and sent to another point where it is then processed and disseminated. These data utilization efforts are generally developed for very specific needs and are highly focused.

But what if the vast armada of mobile communications devices in the public domain were harnessed in a collective and voluntary manner to gather data from many sources, which would then be used to inform emergency planning and service delivery?

The Data We Use or Could Use

Telematics systems available now in many automobiles provide privately run communications centers with crucial details, many gathered automatically, that help advisors understand and address emergency situations for their customers. This level of personal service, with data collected to serve a singular user, would be financially and logistically improbable for the full public. But the idea of data collected at large and used at large, without user intervention, may have merit.

Readily available sensors, embedded in the mobile devices of an array of volunteers in a given geographic area could be brought to bear as passive collectors of such information as temperature and humidity, which can then be automatically sent to emergency managers to aid in tracking dangerous weather systems. Such "geospatial ground-truthing" could be significantly valuable in confirming, refuting or updating data and, thus, enabling emergency managers to prepare for evacuations or sheltering.

Transportation planners do an excellent job of using an array of visual and fixed-sensor data collection devices to determine how best to route and manage traffic. With additional information gleaned from mobile volunteer data collectors, optimizing flow through often congested areas might occur with greater ease, and with real-time accuracy.

On the more deliberate front, another set of volunteer information gatherers could be supplied with mobile applications into which they would enter specific data sets in fields. The information, subsequently sent to a public sector authority, would be aggregated to assist in completing the picture available to planners and managers.

As is the case with most communications schemes, the technological components represent the most straightforward and easy-to-manage aspects. The many privacy regulations and inter-agency agreements that require adherence to, or development of, signify the more difficult parts of such a system of information gathering and dissemination.

'1984' in Redux?

Many areas of Western society are experiencing an increased use of electronic monitoring, which can conjure up images of Orwellian supercomputers tracking each and every aspect of our lives. Although we must indeed remain vigilant with respect to our civil liberties, a volunteer-based data collection and dissemination program that serves public safety and emergency management has far too many positive aspects to be dismissed without serious consideration. If the 21st century is truly to be the information age, then unique uses of information for the good of the public can make this brave new world a safer and more prosperous one for us all.

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