In a disaster, every little bit helps

02 Jan 2014

As featured on TM Forum's the Insider blog.

One might get the impression The Insider is obsessed with natural disasters and what role we, as an industry, should be playing to assist people affected by such calamities. Considering how critical communications has become in everybody’s lives and the fact that most people, even in the poorest nations, have a mobile phone at hand mobile operators have, by default, become the primary means of disseminating disaster information.

This extends to warning people of impending danger, helping to mobilize resources after the event down to locating missing individuals or providing guidance for those trapped.

Public communications networks were initially developed as a critical part of national security infrastructures. The obligation to provide continuous service to customers still applies in most countries and regulators come down hard on operators that fail in this area, but when it comes to times of disaster, moral issues override legislative and commercial ones.

It was extremely heartening to see the efforts made by CSPs in the Philippines before and after Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc. I experienced first-hand the same almost supernatural response by Thai operators immediately after the infamous tsunami pounded Phuket. So many missing people were located and many thousands of others saved simply because emergency network components were in place.

Today, social networks are almost as pervasive as CSPs and they, too, are taking on more social responsibility. By replicating or extending broadcast warning services used in some countries, and extending similar services to countries that don’t, they are helping to save lives.

Twitter is leading the way with Twitter Alerts by leveraging the public, real-time and wide-distribution capabilities of its social broadcast network to enable fast and easy dissemination of vital, time-sensitive information. Any Twitter user is able to set up and start receiving alerts.

The feature has been available for some time in public beta, free of charge, and is limited to select organizations that are enrolled in the Twitter Alerts program. Twitter is careful to point out that Twitter Alerts can help convey urgent messages but do not replace official emergency notification systems or services and should be used as a complementary channel of information.

The Twitter Alerts program is available to local, national, and international institutions that provide critical information to the general public. The following have priority access to this feature:

  • law enforcement and public safety agencies;
  • emergency management agencies;
  • city and municipal governments, as well as their agencies and representatives;
  • county and regional agencies, providing services to cities and municipalities;
  • and select state, federal, and national agencies and NGOs.

Before gaining access to Twitter Alerts, organizations are required to increase the security of their Twitter account. Twitter advises that its Alerts are intended for crisis, disaster, and emergency communications in the categories below:

• Natural disaster and severe weather: A disaster in which the proximate cause is a natural hazard.
• Biological incident: Naturally occurring or man-made biological diseases (communicable and non-communicable) that can cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants.
• Chemical or hazardous materials emergencies: An emergency involving the intentional or unintentional release of a chemical or hazardous material (e.g. oil) that poses a threat to public health, welfare, or the environment.
• Nuclear or radiological incident: Release of radioactive material that poses an actual or perceived hazard to public health, safety, national security, or the environment.
• Explosion: Explosion or blast that can produce numerous casualties with complex, technically challenging injuries.
• Food and agricultural incident: Notification of threats to public health, animal health, food production, aquaculture, livestock production, wildlife, soils, rangelands, and agricultural water supplies.
• Cyber incident: Cyber-related incident of potential or actual large-scale and negative significance.
• Terrorism incident: A threatened or actual terrorist incident.
• Crime: Incidents of criminal activity that place the public in life-threatening harm and require immediate police, fire, or emergency medical services.
• Major transportation incident: Severe disruptions of transportation arteries, infrastructure, or services.

Examples of appropriate Twitter Alert content include warnings for imminent dangers, preventive instructions, evacuation directions, urgent safety alerts, information on access to essential resources, information on critical transit and utility outages, and crowd and misinformation management.

Using a specialized Tweet composer, a Tweet is crafted and tagged as critical from any computer or mobile device. This critical Tweet will be instantly delivered to subscribers as a push notification or text message, putting must-know information directly in front of them.

In addition to getting distributed directly to subscribers’ phones, Twitter Alerts are designed to draw attention, standing out from other Tweets on followers’ Timelines and across and the Twitter mobile apps. Just like other Tweets, Twitter Alerts can be re-tweeted, favorited and replied to, expanding their reach beyond your direct followers.

It’s great to see digital service providers like Twitter complementing the efforts of CSPs. The rewards will surely be plentiful in terms of every life saved.

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