Ideas for good: mark yourself safe

Jim Reeves outlines an idea for a website that could help families and friends communicate with each other in times of disaster.

We often hear the phrase, ‘Hope for the best... Prepare for the worst’. We’re all good at hoping for the best but how do you prepare for the unknown and the unexpected? The first step is to acknowledge a concern, identify a possible risk or bottleneck before it becomes a problem and that’s partly the aim of the BCS ‘Computing ideas for a better society’ incentive.

It’s a sad fact that we in the UK have had to deal with several major incidents recently. Attacks by terrorists, major fires and other life-threatening events. These events are almost impossible to predict or prepare for and our intelligence services and emergency crews do a good job handling such problems, however, when it happens, there’s still the aftermath to deal with and a clamour for information.

Whilst watching the news coverage of one such scene, the news reader supplied a telephone number for members of the public to track down loved ones, with the advice, ‘if the line is busy, keep trying’.

Technology change is needed

Imagine if you had just heard of a major incident near where family or friends live, phoning that number, receiving an engaged tone or an automated message informing you the lines were all busy. How do you think you would react? Maybe you were lucky and managed to get through first time and the person taking your call had no information about your loved one?

Even if the positions were reversed and you know that family and friends will be worried about you. Who should you call first? Do you inform the nearest official so the phone line operators can be updated? Perhaps you would phone your parents, or your partner, or your children. If you’re in the middle of a catastrophe, would you even have time to make that many phone calls?

So the problem is: people want to know you’re safe, you want to tell people you’re OK and the only way to do this is via a phone call. We live in an age where we have the ability to show mobile video footage on the news within minutes of an incident occurring, yet we can’t tell if our loved ones are safe.

A web based solution

What if we designed a relatively simple website which could be used for any major emergency? It wouldn’t be too difficult, to create a site allowing people to enter their own details and their location.

Others could use the site search for a person. Even the telephone operators manning the emergency phone number could use it to improve the quality of information they can supply. Let’s make it even simpler, create a mobile app that you can use to submit your details and location with a single click.

Major Incidents could be recorded on the site, perhaps by the UK Government or the Mayor’s Office, with associated links to provide further information, news coverage, details of the help line number and current updates.

It could become a single point of information for anyone with any concerns. Once an incident has been recorded, people could register themselves and find their friends and family in relation to that specific incident.

I’m sure many will point out that some social media websites already provide such a feature, or at least a limited version of it. A feature only accessible to people already registered with the service, limited in scope, clouded by other posts on your feed, hiding the important message you really want to see. Sadly, not everyone trusts or uses social media and there doesn’t seem to be any facility to highlight the messages from loved ones or search for them in a useful, meaningful way.

Doing further, doing it better

Suppose you already searched for someone and there was no information, then later that person registered themselves safe. Suddenly, the system can be proactive and notify you automatically, via text, email or an automated voice call. The site can also notify people registering themselves that someone is worried about them.

If someone found their loved one, the site could allow people doing a search to notify their loved one that someone is looking for them, using a similar automated approach mentioned above, helping people to communicate and contact each other to minimise the stress we all would feel under these circumstances.

Of course, there will always be unfortunate casualties in such a crisis, those who have been moved to a shelter, hospitalised or worse. People who may not be able to register themselves as safe simply because they can’t or aren’t. However, officials who are already acting in their best interest could register these people, such as hospital staff or the police.

Searches would be limited to a handful of results to prevent ne’er-do-goods from farming the data and each result would display basic information only, such as the name of the person, perhaps the last 3 digits of their mobile, their approximate location and their safety status. The details recorded would be much more than this to improve the quality of searches and minimise false positives, perhaps we could request their mobile, email, address but this data would never be visible in the search results.

Once an incident is downgraded, the data would become locked and ultimately destroyed. This would minimise the risk of volumes of data being a target by hackers, spammers or scammers, helping to ensure the site is trustworthy and only used for the designed purpose.

This is one of the rare occasions where personally identifiable information should be submitted to a website, albeit limited details and only for a short period.

Feel inspired?

Any of those ideas push your buttons? Or inspire further thoughts? Share your ideas.

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The Echoes blog showcases the best of the conversations on the BCS Voices debate platform.

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