Following the March 2013 flood that caused unimaginable chaos in Port Louis, I was thinking about how private radios, in particular Radio Plus, played a major role in ensuring communication in such a time of crisis. They relayed important information on traffic jams, where water accumulated, precautions to take and important announcements from the Police etc. While thinking on how technology could have helped, it struck me – What if we made use of mobile phones? Virtually everyone in Mauritius, including kids, has a phone in their pocket or purse now, providing a good means to communicate information to large numbers of people quickly.
SMS Alert System
It’s immediately apparent that there was a lack of communication in such an emergency. Radios can only do so much. After all, you need a radio close and switched on to be able to hear announcements.
An alert system would make use of SMS messages to alert people about what to do and areas to avoid. The messages must be short and easily understandable. For e.g., in case of a flood, the messages would contain a list of regions to avoid and in case of a cyclone, it would contain the current Class alert like Class 3 now in place as soon as it is decided. For torrential rain, it would inform people that schools are closed for the day.
There are a few things to remember if such a system is to be put in place:
- The messages must be easy to understand. French is preferred since it’s close to Creole.
- The messages must be short. You can only say so much in 160 characters.
- The messages must not be sent too frequently, otherwise people would disregard them. They must only be used for the most important of messages.
- All heads of emergency services in Mauritius should be able to send messages, including Police, Traffic Unit, Fire Services, Health Services, Met Services and maybe, the Prime Minister’s Office. Access to the service should be distributed so that important messages do not get delayed by bureaucratic slowness.
- The system could cause additional load on an already-strained mobile network if there is an emergency.
For the fourth point, it’s possible to use cell-based location to restrict who gets what messages. For e.g., a flood alert and evacuation notice can be broadcast to only people in Port-Louis and surrounding regions, but not to people in Souillac. This would restrict the load to only a region of the mobile network and not affect everyone. If needed, the network could assign higher priorities to those emergency SMS broadcasts, dropping normal user SMSs if required to alleviate load on the network.
Extending the idea further, a special number, like the well-known “96” for cyclone information could be set up for emergency announcements. People could ring the number and hear a recorded message on what is happening and what to do. Ideally, this number should be the same number that sends emergency SMS messages.
A Twitter account for collaborative information sharing
Just like the @WeatherMu account re-tweets about #weathermu hashtags, a Twitter account could be set up to relay important information to the public in real-time. This method also allows for less intrusive alerts to be sent to users, as well as instructions.
To ensure people can communicate with each other, the account could be on the lookout for special hash-tags and re-tweet messages that people might send. For e.g. if you saw an accident on the motorway, you could tweet about it (after stopping your vehicle, of course) and the account would selectively re-tweet it, cutting down on spammy tweets. So, it would work as a two-way communication channel and possibly become a collaborative effort.
This idea can be implemented quite easily I believe, even without Government intervention. A “collaborative” Twitter channel that would aggregate important events about happenings in Mauritius, live. The same idea can be implemented on Facebook, possibly via a Facebook group and the information relayed to Twitter and vice-versa.
However, if Government were to do it, it would be more trust-worthy. Also, in times of non-emergency, the police could use the account to broadcast non-emergency messages such as roads to avoid because of traffic jams or because an accident is causing slow downs. Again, it has to be used only for important information, not to tell people to not speed on the roads. People will stop caring if they receive too many “spammy” messages or tweets.
Well, those two ideas occurred to me, and I thought it would be a good idea to share and get the opinion of the community. If you have other ideas about how technology could be used to improve communication in times of emergency, to reach a large number of people, please post your suggestions in the comments section below.