Some of you may have noticed a colored badge in my blog’s right column that shows what I’ve been doing recently. If you haven’t explored it further, it’s from a messaging service called Twitter – and I’m beginning to wonder if it could be used to save lives. Seriously.
First, let’s talk Twitter. Over the last year there’s been an explosion of dot-coms blazing trails in the text messaging space. Twitter is just one of these companies. Some people describe it as a form of “microblogging.” Rather than posting a blog entry to write a few sentences or paragraphs about what you’re doing, Twitter lets you post quick phrases online, such as “Getting ready to board a plane to Texas” or “Doing homework – test tomorrow.” That in itself isn’t particularly interesting, given you could do that if you wanted to on any blogging platform. But Twitter’s goal is to help you circulate these updates among a group of friends in real time, no matter where they are.
When you participate in Twitter, you identify other Twitter users as friends. Each time you post an update about yourself, it’s circulated to them via multiple platforms: on the Web, through instant messaging, via RSS, and perhaps most interesting, using SMS text messaging. Your friends can pick whichever of these platforms suits their needs. So when you’re at your PC, you might receive these updates via instant messaging, but when you’re on the go, you switch the alerts to SMS. Similarly, you can use any of these platforms to publish your updates as well. It’s all one big happy multiplatform group experience.
I’ve been using Twitter for a few weeks now, and mostly it’s just a fun way to keep in touch with people – particularly the insane number of videobloggers that have embraced it in recent months. But along with being able to get a constant play-by-play of how people like Zadi Diaz and Steve Garfield spend every waking moment, Twitter raises some tantalizing possibilities as a tool for first responders in times of public emergencies.
Two years ago, not long after the Boxing Day Tsunami struck the coasts of Asia, several bloggers including Taran Rampersad began discussing the potential for SMS text messaging as a tool for first responders. Why SMS? Because it’s often the last technology standing during disasters. Take Hurricane Katrina for example. Mobile phones and email became unreliable due to heavy traffic and damage to infrastructure. Satellite phones were few and far between. Yet text messaging continued to work, because it’s very low bandwidth and designed to be re-routed around problem areas within a network. Taran and others began talking about building a tool called Alert Retrieval Cache, or ARC. ARC would be an SMS discussion group system allowing first-responders to text each other with updates and requests, each tagged with keywords so the message would get to the right person.
It was a great idea, but it didn’t get very far. There wasn’t a critical mass of people with the time and energy to make it happen. In the meantime, I began playing around with kludging together free tools like Google Groups and the SMS-email gateway known as Teleflip to see if it was possible to set up a discussion group comprised only of people sending and receiving text messages. It worked, but it wasn’t exactly pretty.
Fast forward many moons, and now we have text messaging tools like Twitter, Mozes and others that were developed simply for people to keep in touch and have fun. I can’t say I’m surprised that’s how these tools are developing, because it’s a hell of a lot easier to get venture capital from investors when you’re creating a tool that would be the darling of teenagers everywhere. Now that these tools are slowly maturing, though, I think it’s worth asking the question again: might text messaging groups serve any purpose in times of public emergencies?
My gut tells me yes. Take this hypothetical situation. Well before any disaster, groups of first-responders would set up accounts on Twitter, then mark each other as friends. After that, they might remain dormant until a disaster happens, but then they’d fire up their mobile phones and start texting each other through Twitter’s shortcode. Almost instantaneously, messages would get routed to everyone in the group, allowing them to keep in touch with each other even when other networks crash.
Of course, that’s somewhat of a primitive communication model of doing business. Not everyone in a given group would literally need to receive every message, and sometimes you’d need to communicate with multiple groups simultaneously. We’d need to see some extra functionality added to the system for this to happen. For example, we’d benefit from the ability to route messages to specific groups of people and contextualize them with tags. For example, a volunteer Red Cross worker who also happens to be a member of an animal rescue league might need to be able to route their posts to specific groups of people. So if they have a text they only want to send out to their Red Cross colleagues, they would text the phrase “groups: redcross” before typing the rest of their message, getting it to that specific group. The same idea could be used to send messages to multiple groups (“groups: redcross, animalrescue”) or to all of your groups (“groups: all”).
Taking it a step further, your messages might only apply to certain individuals within a large group, say Red Cross workers near New Orleans with access to insulin. In these cases, you’d want to be able to preface your text message with group designations and keyword tags for additional context. It might looks something like this:
tags: insulin, requests, neworleans-louisiana
Insulin needed stat, Convention Center, 100 units min
Allowing users to post to a group with specific tags would then route the message to other first responders who identify those tags as being relevant to them, in the same way current Twitter users would “follow” the posts of specific friends. Meanwhile, the same messages would go out via RSS, instant messaging, email and the Web, so those people who still had access to those platforms could monitor what’s going on and offer their assistance. Similarly, entire cities of people could subscribe to groups and keywords related to their communities, so officials could communicate with them en masse, vice versa and with each other.
Anyway, I know tools like Twitter weren’t designed for saving lives. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they had a few more features and were put to use properly. -andy