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Two scientists think that social networks can improve disaster relief.
February 15, 2007

In this week’s Science, two researchers at the University of Maryland suggest that local, state, and federal governments develop, a social network that would allow residents to report disasters, request assistance from neighbors, and check for emergency updates and relief information.

A screen shot of the proposed website.

Although dialing 911 is effective during health emergencies and home fires, when natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina strike, telephone operators are rapidly overwhelmed. In the ensuing chaos, public and private agencies are unable to coordinate their relief efforts, and individuals remain uninformed about evacuation plans and relief efforts. As the researchers envision it, community members would register in advance on their community response grid (CRG) using computers, cell phones, or any other mobile device. Emergency coordinators could gather and disseminate information via the site. One of its most important features would be its role in fostering closer community contacts and enabling resident-to-resident assistance during major emergencies.

“The emergence of the Internet as a social environment led us to come up with a service where people could first report the scope of a tsunami or a wildfire or even an E. coli attack,” says Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the report. Shneiderman got the idea when he typed 911 into Google and was unable to find any useful information. “There was no service that would provide information or assistance during Katrina-like events.” The system is not strictly an online analog of 911 or other emergency-reporting services, says Shneiderman. “We think it may be helpful in advance of emergencies, during emergencies, and during rebuilding and restoration afterwards.”

Murray Turoff, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says that “what most people don’t seem to understand is that the real first responders in disasters are the people in the community.” Turoff, who developed the first emergency computer network for the U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness in 1971, says that the government still has not taken steps to ensure that relief efforts are properly coordinated. “All these organizations need to be able to talk laterally,” he says.

Jennifer Preece, an expert in human-computer interactions at the University of Maryland and a coauthor of the study, says that for to be successful, it will have to draw in volunteers from other communities and be integrated with existing social-networking sites. If the government backs the site, she says, it, too, could have the clout to draw in users. She points out that during Katrina, many people found their information by heading to local libraries. “Why did they go there? These are established and trusted communities that they know about.”

For some, the cost of a raises a red flag. Shneiderman and Preece estimate that the cost would be on par with the budget of local 911 phone centers, ranging from $200,000 to $3 million apiece. John Bertot, a technology and policy specialist at Florida State University, is doubtful that communities could fund through taxes on Internet service providers: “A lot of people complain about [the] universal service fee [a tax leveraged on long-distance phone lines], and a lot of folks have been trying to get rid of that tax for the better part of the decade.” However, he admits that Shneiderman and Preece’s proposal is interesting.

Shneiderman says, “When people hear about this [proposal], they say, ‘My God, that’s a clever idea; why didn’t I think of it?’” He is eager to begin developing the system and will iron out any kinks as he goes. He has applied for funding through the National Science Foundation to develop a prototype that will service some 45,000 people at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. If the pilot is successful, he thinks could be a reality in three to five years.

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