In this Q & A, Russ Johnson, Global Emergency Response expert at Esri, speaks about the growing importance of geo-enabled smartphone apps that not only warn the public of impending crises, but also harvest critical community updates to support government response.
Q: What trends are you seeing with the use of technology before and during terror-related events?
Russ Johnson: We’re seeing governments take a pro-active initiative to provide the public with tools to share valuable information with local authorities, rather than waiting for a crisis to unfold.
A significant percentage of crimes or terror-related events would not be prevented or solved without substantial support and cooperation from the public.
Having worked with various public safety organisations around the world, I’ve seen, first-hand, how information provided by the community can help mitigate terror attacks and crimes. Community participation and real-time data analysis have become foundational elements of modern-day policing strategies.
Beyond community engagement, location analytics and GIS technology are increasingly becoming a core component of national security strategies, enabling agencies the world over to easily share information during a crisis.
Q: What role can smartphone apps play in managing a terror-related emergency?
Russ Johnson: From my experience in launching these types of apps with several public safety agencies around the world, the result has almost always been enhanced civic engagement. As the applications provide relevant information that enhances citizen safety and well-being, they drum up more interest in them, generate more traffic and become more familiar to citizens.
During an emergency or terror-related event, outbound messages to the public need to be short and precise — for example providing directions to stay indoors or head to a nearby evacuation centre — because people are in a situation where they are upset, nervous and in need of clear directions.
Another vital consideration is the application must be capable of scaling quickly, particularly if it’s being used to source updates from the community. During the Boston Marathon attacks, local law enforcement and public safety agencies were unprepared to receive the massive amount of information that the community was providing.
Everyone has a smartphone and is capable of submitting information and photos at a moment’s notice.
Apps must be capable of handling that level of information input, because everyone in the community is a potential sensor or source of information.
Being able to collect massive amounts of information from the public is great, but response operations and technology must be aligned; protocols must be in place to manage the incoming information, disseminate it to officers for follow-up and to track case status.
From what I’ve seen in other organisations, precious time can often be wasted trying to mobilise resources after an attack. Having the capability to automatically consume the data into a location-based analytics platform assists government officials to efficiently organise assignments based on location and prioritise based on critical infrastructure threats.
Q: What challenges do you foresee with app security when alerting the public to safety issues? Is there a risk the app itself could be targeted or hijacked?
Russ Johnson: Apps of this nature have to be secure to ensure they’re not vulnerable to security breaches. Having a secure and trustworthy location-based analytics platform for apps is critical. It’s also important that the information system they are built on is robust and scalable.
Systems should have intrusion detection, anti-viral measures and firewall provisions and an ongoing security program to assure the app and data associated with it is securely managed.
Q: What are some of the best apps you’ve seen that have successfully been used to notify the public of safety concerns during an emergency?
Russ Johnson: There are a number of good examples of the effectiveness of this strategy from the United States where the government initiated a public outreach campaign called “If You See Something, Say Something”. It’s a secure mobile app that provides the public with a quick and easy way to report suspicious activity. A number of potential terrorist plots have been thwarted through information provided by the public in this manner.
Another good example of using a location-based analytics platform to source community updates was a couple of years ago when the Santa Clara Police Department in California was alerted to an assault at a football match through tweets posted by spectators. Although the spectators weren’t using a dedicated security app, their posts on Twitter — along with relevant information from live camera feeds in the venue —were quickly mapped and analysed using a GIS platform, allowing police officers to quickly identify, locate and apprehend the suspects within minutes.
Q: What other options are there for sharing information during these types of events?
Russ Johnson: We are seeing a growing interest in the deployment of impact maps which are interactive online maps that visually convey key emergency information as an event unfolds. These smart maps can indicate affected areas, identify the population at risk, chart weather feeds and provide live updates from the ground through social media feeds.
Q: What are some important considerations for organisations looking to build these apps?
Russ Johnson: Apps of this nature should provide a complete situational awareness.
Understanding precedes action, so apps must provide a complete picture to help citizens and authorities make well-informed decisions during an emergency.
It is also important for applications to be easy to use, intuitive and to be collecting data that supports the intended mission.
When the application data is integrated into a GIS platform, it enables government agencies to quickly see patterns, analyse potential impacts to infrastructure and population centres and respond quickly and efficiently.
In Australia, GIS technology is already supporting a variety of the country’s smart community projects in transport, health and urban planning. From a public safety perspective, access to existing foundational data to perform vulnerability analysis is critical for planning to ensure preparedness and identify mitigation strategies.
We often focus on the value of real-time data for situational awareness and response but without adequate planning and preparedness, response suffers.
Real-time, crowdsourced data becomes much more actionable when it’s integrated with authoritative information, then mapped and analysed. This enables authorities to have a complete view of a situation so they can understand patterns, potential impacts, priority actions and increase resiliency and community safety.
About the author
Global Public Safety Expert