Peer to Peer Information During Disasters

Clearing out tabs in the browser, I came across an interesting article on lessons that should have been learned from the recent blizzard that left motorists stranded for 20 hours on I-78 in Pennsylvania.

The good news is that the state, with a common-sense plan to capitalize on the communication devices most of us had with us Feb. 14 — including cell phones, laptop computers and GPS devices — can either avoid similar problems in the future, or at least minimize them.


…Now it’s time for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania State Police to capitalize on ways you and I can play a constructive role in fighting terror — and blizzards — through communication devices and applications we use daily. To cite only a few examples:

  • New York City residents will soon be able to attach a camera-phone picture or video when filing a 911 complaint. Explaining Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision, an aide referred to YouTube’s popularity, saying, “This is the way the world is now working, so it’s just time to bring 911 into cyberspace.”


    Believe me, lots of us could have provided PennDOT with the “situational awareness” they would have needed via phone pictures. Because the phones now include GPS, officials could have pieced together detailed mile-by mile photo maps — “mashed up” with Google maps of precisely where the worst conditions were.

  • Contra Costa County in California is implementing a technology called GeoCast developed by MITRE, a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and commercialized by Square Loop, as part of its best-in-the-nation multi-mode, all-hazard public alerting system. With it, the state police could have sent SMS text messages that only drivers caught in the tie-up would have received, telling what the situation was and asking them to send the aforementioned camera-phone pictures to PennDOT.

  • Dash Express, a new GPS system for sale this summer, would have warned authorities automatically. Each unit is Web-enabled, and if several subscribers had all had the same experience of grinding to a halt, the units would have automatically relayed that back to the company’s computers. Under ordinary conditions, an algorithm would merge data from the cars with historical information about I-78, and recommend an alternative route. In this case, it could also have let officials know much earlier that traffic was at a standstill.

  • Believe it or not, we could have formed our own wireless network to share information during the jam! An Illinois activist group, CUWiN, created free, downloadable software allowing instantaneous creation of a self-forming, self-healing community wireless network. That “community” could even be a 50-mile long, four-lane wide one formed involuntarily by thousands of people stuck on I-78.

The point of the article is a really good one. User self service and collective intelligence shouldn’t just be limited to consumer applications! This stuff has real utility for government disaster response. Unfortunately, governments tend to be late adopters of new technologies.

Do you have any great stories of the new world of networked data collection and real-time user data in dealing with traffic, weather, or other disasters? Or links to technologies that can be used in “situational awareness”? If so, please let us know.

(We’re of course covering this kind of thing in our Where 2.0 Conference.)