‘Where’s safe?’ Creating a tool to guide people in an emergency

A guest post by Paul Bradshaw (Help me investigate and publisher of Online Journalism Blog)

It’s taken 15 hours – including sleep* – for a group of people in Birmingham to build a tool to help guide people in an emergency event. The tool runs on a mobile phone, allowing anyone involved in emergency planning to manage information and populations while they’re on the move.

Here’s how it works in more detail. Once an emergency is declared – for example, a chemical spill, earthquake, etc. – the emergency services activate a series of safe havens – “rest centres” in the UK jargon; “musters” in Canada – where people know they can be safe. Typically these might be locations used as polling stations, leisure centres, and other suitable public buildings.

The tool – provisionally titled ‘Where’s Safe?’ – allows anyone to send a text message containing their location and receive information back telling them where the emergency is – and where to go to stay safe.

That simple text message kicks off a chain of events that allows the emergency services – and anyone else – to keep track of where people are going. Here’s how it runs:

  1. The text message is received by a mobile phone which is running an application in the background (this was built overnight by Lloyd Henning for Android but could be built for other platforms)
  2. The application sends that text message to Scraperwiki, which looks at the information sent and tries to locate it geographically.
  3. Based on that, Scraperwiki returns messages to be sent: firstly, a message about the emergency, and secondly, a message with details of the nearest safe haven. The safe haven is chosen in a way that avoids the person having to travel through the emergency zone.
  4. These messages are received by the mobile and forwarded back to the sender of the original text message.
  5. Meanwhile, Scraperwiki adds the original message to the appropriate point on the map and updates the ‘count’ of people heading to that particular safe haven.

Meanwhile, any member of the emergency services whose mobile phone is registered with the tool can send a message to the same mobile phone number to update the details of safe havens and other elements of the emergency – for example, turning a safe haven ‘off’ or ‘on’, changing the message being sent out about the emergency (which is then sent out to everyone who has sent a text message), or areas that are being affected, etc.

The impressive thing about the whole service is that it runs entirely on SMS (although it could be scaled up through incorporating a tool like FrontlineSMS) and so could be deployed for something as small as a school outing.

Some final footnotes: Julian Todd tweaked Scraperwiki to allow some additional functionality. Sarah-Jayne Farmer – who was part of the crowdsourced emergency work around the Haiti earthquake – produced the initial architecture and user requirements for how the service might work and worked through use cases – sketches shown below. These were refined further by Peter Sutton – shown at the bottom – before the build began.

initial sketches for emergency tool

refinement sketch by Peter Sutton

*They didn’t get any sleep

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3 Responses to ‘Where’s safe?’ Creating a tool to guide people in an emergency

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-10-21 « Sarah Booker

  2. Pingback: ‘Where’s safe?’ a new tool for emergencies | Birmingham Resilience Team

  3. a p madden says:

    …..and if the mobile phone system has been knocked out (or turned off)???

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