Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Twitter-like applications for humanitarian relief operations

In "Humanitarian Twittermifan" (May 26th 2009) the Sahana Disaster Management System blog discusses the use of Twitter-like microblogs for humanitarian relief. The particular application mentioned is for the World Food Program internal communication. This is implemented using open source microblogging package Laconica for the server and Twhirl for the client.

ps: In "National Bushfire Warning System: Micro-blogging for emergencies" I suggested the use of Twitter-like systems for use in bushfires.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Masterclass on National Bushfire Warning System

Apart from "Green ITSM" I have offered draft material on how to build a National Bushfire Warning System for Australia as part of a masterclass. on technical writing at ANU. So I need to write something on the topic. As a starting point, I have the abstract in the seminar announcement , a conference talk on "Community Warning Systems" and an "Australian Community Warning System Proposal" submitted to the Council of Australian Governments. Since then I have looked at "Obligation for Australian broadcasters to provide emergency warnings ", "Fault in Pacific Tsunami Warning System", "Mobile beep for emergency Cell Broadcast" and "Australian Emergency Alert System". My conclusion from this is:
  1. SMS is not suitable for large scale use in a community warning system. SMS is too slow (taking around an hour to send 1M messages) and addressing information is lacking.
  2. Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) is technically suitable (able to send millions of messages in a few seconds to all mobile phones in a specific location), but not currently sufficiently supported by the mobile phone industry to be usable for warnings to the general public.
  3. SMS and Cell Broadcast would be suitable as part of a system for relaying emergency messages from emergency services to the public via the broadcast media. This would improve on current methods using faxes and phone calls.
  4. Short text messages could reference detailed web based information.
  5. Standardised, efficient formats are required for web based emergency information. Accessibility and mobile guidelines can be used for designing an efficient readable format, as well as specialised guidelines for emergency information.
Given I now have my conclusion, I need to find some references to support it. ;-)

More seriously, the problem is to define the topic sufficiently to be able to find relevant work. Emergency management is a very wide topic, and even communication for emergencies has a large literature. One good place to start is the recent work on XML based formats for emergency messages, being pioneered by the
OASIS Emergency Management Adoption Technical Committee and members such as Renato Iannella at at NICTA.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mobile beep for emergency Cell Broadcast

Can you set a mobile phone to beep when an emergency "Cell Broadcast" is received? I will be presenting a seminar on a "National Bushfire Warning System" in Canberra, 16 April 2009. One option I discuss in this will be to use "Cell Broadcast" to mobile phones for an Australian Community Warning System. This would have the advantage that a short text message could be set to all the phones in a small area or the whole country in a few seconds.

Last week the Victorian Government tried to send an SMS message about bush-fires to all mobile phone users in the state. The message was sent 2 Mar 2009 14:30:10. It took approximately one hour to send. Also some people in Victoria did not get the message and some not in Victoria did.

Cell Broadcast is designed for simultaneous delivery of messages to multiple users in a specified area. It is more formally known as "Short Message Service - Cell Broadcast" (SMS-CB) to distinguish it from the popular SMS, more formally: Short Message Service - Point to Point (SMS-PP). Use of cell broadcast would overcome the problem of the speed of dispatch of messages and misdirection. Cell Broadcast messages are designed to send to all handsets in one or more cells at once. This speeds up transmission and removes the need to have a list of the phones to send to.

However, one problem with Cell Broadcasts is that mobile phones usually have the alert (tone or vibration) turned off. Some phones may have no way to turn on alert for Cell Broadcasts and others may have no way to turn it on just for emergency messages. Does anyone have experience with using Cell Broadcast with particular model phones?

The details of cell broadcast for emergencies is discussed in "Support for Cell Broadcast as Global Emergency Alert System" by Karin Axelsson and Cynthia Novak (Linköpings University, 2007). The authors point out that different phones handle Cell Broadcast differently and the phone makers call the service by different names.

The Cell Broadcast Forum have a Handset Requirements Specification (October 2006). This has a section on "Requirements on Handling of Emergency Messages" which requires the phone to alert for an emergency message, even if the user has switched off alerts for messages. However, this requirement does not seem to be followed by manufacturers:
2.10 Requirements on Handling of Emergency Messages

This section deals with the handling by the ME when an emergency warning message is received. This section does not so much provide the Cell Broadcast forum’s view on handling of Emergency Warning Messages, but the requirements of the Dutch government, that may become applicable throughout the EU in due time.

2.10.1 Mandatory Requirements

58. Factory setting: In a country where a public warning service over Cell Broadcast is operational, the government, or the operators may require that the default Factory Setting be set to active, i.e. CB messages can be received and the Message Identifier that has been assigned to the public warning service be selected.

59. Reception tone: The ME shall indicate the reception of an
emergency message by playing a ring tone that is specific for
emergency messages and cannot be allocated to other services on the ME. This ringtone shall be activated even if the ME setting is set to silent mode, meeting mode, buzzing mode, etc., and also regardless of the Display Mode (Normal or Direct).

60. Storage: Emergency messages shall always be stored, unless or until the user decides to delete the message.

2.10.2 Other Requirements

61. The WARN Act that was effectuated in the US in October 2006 states that it shall be impossible to opt-out of a presidential level message. Further recommendations or legislation were not available at the time of writing of this section and will be included at a later stage (2007). ...

From: Handset Requirements Specification , The Cell Broadcast Forum, October 2006
David Crowe gives a good overview of Cell Broadcast for Emergency Alerts in Wireless Telecom Magazine Q3‘2006. He points out limitations, including messages being even shorter than SMS (in 88 character segments), no verification a message was received and no standard categories to identify emergency messages and standard no user interface. One issue he raises is the detrimental impact of cell broadcast on battery life. However, Axelsson and Novak's research indicates this is not a problem. As Crowenotes, a conservative approach would be to use this for single segment (88 characters) short messages, as was used with SMS in Victoria. The message would just advise of the emergency andto check with other services, such as ABC Radio.

Nokia's Extended User Guide for the N85 phone gives Cell broadcast settings. It is likely that newer large screen "smart phones" will better support cell broadcast. As an example Blackberry provide details on how to Turn on cell broadcasting. It should also be possible to add this feature to later model phones with a software upgrade over the air.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

National Bushfire Warning System, Seminar, Canberra, 16 April 2009

I will be presenting a seminar on a "National Bushfire Warning System" at The Australian National University in Canberra on 16 April 2009. In this I will expand on my talk at the APCO 2009 Conference on "Community Warning Systems" and an "Australian Community Warning System Proposal" submitted to the Council of Australian Governments. All welcome, no need to book, just turn up.
Seminar Announcement
School of Computer Science, CECS
The Australian National University

Date: Thursday, 16 April 2009
Time: 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Venue: Room N101, CSIT Building [108], North Road, Canberra

Speaker: Tom Worthington
Title: National Bushfire Warning System


Recent bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland have brought the issue of warning systems for the public to prominence. Modern digital communications, the Internet and web, have a useful role in emergency communications. However,some technologies such as VoIP may make Australia more vulnerable. An alternative national system using Cell Broadcast technology via mobile phones is proposed. The potential for Social Networking to be used for emergencies will also be discussed.


Tom Worthington is an IT consultant and Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the Australian National University, where he teaches the design on Internet, web and mobile phone systems, including for emergency management.

He is a former IT adviser at Headquarters Australian Defence Force. Tom is a member of the Project Management Committee of Sahana open source disaster management system, used for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He was elected a Fellow of the ACS for his work on Internet policy for Australia.

Seminars homepage:

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Australian Emergency Alert System

The proposal that Australian governments build a national community warning system to be ready for the 2009/2010 bush-fire season appears to have been reasonably well received. Several people pointed out similar proposals and the difficulties they faced with inter-state rivalry. These problems can be addressed by quickly building a small simple and cheap system, which states can interface to. Those states with existing sophisticated systems can interface to the national system simply. Those states which lack an effective system of their own can use the national system directly, with no need to buy any additional equipment.

The system could be named the Australian Emergency Alert System (AEAS) and modelled on the USA's Emergency Alert System (EAS). The AEAS would be conceptually similar to the EAS but take advantage of advances in digital technology to deliver a more functional system at a lower cost.

US Emergency Alert System

The US Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national warning system introduced in 1994, as an upgrade of a cold war era emergency broadcast system. The system was designed to enable the US President to address the nation with 10 minutes warning, but that function has never been used. Commercial broadcast radio and TV services, as well pay cable and satellite services are required to interface to the EAS. While interfacing to TV, the EAS is designed to only deliver a spoken message, with no graphics. Newer devices, such as weather radios can detect a more advanced digital signal using Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME), which allows for filtering messages for specific regions and types. The system is used for tsunami and warnings.

Common Alerting Protocol

The EAS is essentially analog technology to which some digital enhancements have been added (such as SAME). The USA is considering upgrading parts of the system with the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an XML-based data format for exchanging public warnings and emergency information. CAP is a web based technology which is therefore much simpler to implement on digital devices.

Australian Implementation of CAP for a National Warning System

Australia has no EAS infrastructure to upgrade and no stock of weather radios to maintain compatibility with, so it can implement CAP more simply and directly than the using a network of purely digital devices. In addition, as Australia has a national, government owned broadcaster, with a national digital infrastructure, CAP can be interfaced to national radio and TV networks simply and at low cost. In addition the availability of the Internet and the web allows for much more detailed information to be provided to supplement the short emergency messages.

Levels of Detail of Information

One flaw in the design of proposed Australian emergency warning systems is a lack of depth in the information provided. Emergency messages for the community are brief. However, there needs to be more detailed information made available through other channels, typically standard information prepared in advance, not specific to the current emergency. It can be difficult for the public to obtain this information and also for the media to find it to provide to the public. The result can be that while the public may get the brief emergency message they have little idea what to do in response.

The current practice in Australia is to ask the public to tune to local ABC Radio. This can now be supplemented by asking them, where Internet access is available, to read a specific web page. Templates of information can be prepared in advance, so only the details of the current event needed be added. The web pages can be carefully designed using well established principles for efficient and rapid communication of information. The web pages can be made compatible with assistive technology for the disabled, with mobile phones and with TV screens, so the media can relay the information.

The AEAS can provide brief messages, suitable for transmission to mobile phones as a text message, displayed on a TV screen and read out on radio. Those messages can then refer to more detailed information available via the web. Broadcasters can read the web pages and convey the information to the public via audio and visual means.

Web Interface for the AEAS

The assumption in the US and current Australian warning systems is that after the brief emergency warning is issued, some other system will be used to send detailed information. No coordinated system exists in Australia to relay such information to the public. During the Canberra 2003 and Victorian 2008 brush fires, web based systems of the state governments were unable to provide effective information due to poor design of the web sites and a lack of planning.

It is proposed that the AEAS include a national emergency web site, to provide coordinated information to the public. Links to specific national and state systems can be made from here. The web site will also provide an interface for officials at the national, state and local levels to issue AEAS information, where those officials do not have access to specialised CAP interfaces. The officials will be able to upload a bulletin about the emergency as well as the brief text message.

Emergency agencies which have preformed templates for emergency bulletins will be able to use these with the AEAS. Agencies which have automated systems to fill in the templates will be able to use these to speed the process. While messages would normally be originated from a national and state emergency headquaters, the system would allow an authorised fire-fighter, using a smart phone, to issue a warning for their local area from the field.

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