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Stopping the Next SARS with Cell Phones

Researchers tap cell phones to keep citizens informed in times of disaster.
January 18, 2006

As the possibility of massive fatalities from bird flu looms over Asia and other areas, researchers and health officials are concerned about more than vaccines and animal control. People in regions vulnerable to SARS such as Taiwan and Hong Kong received no warnings about potential outbreaks or what precautions they should take, according to a report [2.75-megabyte PDF file] published by the Government Accounting Office.

But new emergency alert and information services under development by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the University of Illinois may help contain infectious diseases and biohazards in the near future.

“During an outbreak or emergency, getting good info to the public rapidly about what they need to do protect themselves is vital and can save lives,” says CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Morcone.

“Avoiding certain foods, avoiding certain areas, wearing a mask…all those messages are delivered through a number of channels by the CDC during outbreaks and emergencies and we know that getting information to people when they need it is vital.”

At the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers are helping the CDC to develop an emergency alert system that would rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) features built into many of today’s mobile handsets. In areas hit with an outbreak, people who carry GPS-enabled mobile phones and are subscribed to the alert service would receive an emergency alert text message with instructions about where to go or what to do during specific emergencies, such as an outbreak of anthrax or bird flu.

One version of these instructions has already been developed in the form of small applications written in the Java programming language that show emergency procedures step by step and can be downloaded to and stored on mobile devices that support Java.

Kallisto Productions, a mobile applications company in Fairfax, CA, is doing much of the programming work for CADE. An authoring system developed by Kallisto enables programmers to write quickly the Java applets using content provided by CDC and CADE. The authoring system was designed to check in periodically with a central server, downloading information updates on new precautions and symptoms to watch for in the event of an outbreak.

According to Colleen Monahan, CADE’s director, demo versions of Kallisto’s these applications will be available to download from CADE’s website early next month. CADE presented these demos to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in early January in a bid for more funding.

Reaching the general population and rapidly steering them in the right direction during a deadly outbreak or disaster, such as the next Hurricane Katrina, is a tricky problem. That’s why the team is planning to leverage the GPS features found in all newer-model cell phones. In that way, people in areas hit with an outbreak could receive directions to the nearest medical clinic and be told what routes to take in an evacuation.

“We’re also using the GPS features for other programs such as the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention using Nextel phones,” Monahan says. “You can develop customized GPS apps that allow you to track people doing outreach work in high crime areas.”

“Using mobile devices could be an ideal way to communicate with people directly affected, because more than 200 million people in the U.S. subscribe to a mobile service,” says Ken Hyers, principal mobile analyst at ABI, a technology research firm based in Oyster Bay, NY.

But there are a few obstacles to implementing this and other mobile emergency alert services, not the least of which are subscriber-privacy issues, funding, distribution logistics and – in the case of natural disasters or terrorist attacks – the vulnerability of network infrastructure.

To get past the privacy restrictions, researchers say such a system would need to be “opt-in.” Citizens would need to learn that emergency alerts were available, download the necessary applets, request a download, and subscribe in order to get updates. Thousands already opt in to some established mobile alert systems, such as text versions of Amber Alerts and terrorist alerts in Washington, D.C. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission could intercede in the future and automatically send alerts to all 200 million subscribers in the U.S., according to Hyers.

Infrastructure such as cell towers and the T1 Internet lines that the cellular network depends on proved to be more reliable during Katrina than many expected. In fact, many people text-messaged each other reliably during the hurricane, according to Hyers. He says that, in some cases, Verizon and BellSouth arrived at disaster sites in New Orleans and before FEMA. Often they were able to replace backup power on cell tower generators and get T1s back up and running.

Infrastructure and privacy issues haven’t discouraged researchers in Japan, where mobile carrier KDDI, IBM Japan, and Kyoto University are collaborating on a real-time evacuation alert service for mobile phones. The service displays small readable maps and evacuation routes in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. A trial of the system is underway in Kyoto.

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