Community Warning Systems - Balancing Technology and Reliability

Community Warning Systems

Balancing Technology and Reliability

Tom Worthington FACS HLM

IT consultant and Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Computer Science, Australian National University

For the APCO Australasia Annual Conference, Australian Technology Park, Sydney, 10am, 3 March 2009
See also: Australian Community Warning System Proposal, 3 March 2009

The Internet and web have a useful role in emergency communications, provided the use is planned. However, VOIP communications and the Government's National Broadband Network will make Australia more vulnerable, unless the system is built to a higher standard. The ad-hoc arrangement of state based telephone-based emergency warning systems is no substitute for a nationally coordinated system. Digital technologies such as Cell Broadcast provide a better alternative. Emergency officials need to listen to what the ICT professionals tell them is possible and not just try and build digital versions of old analog and teletype systems. Both professions need to take the public into their confidence and treat the community as partners, not as victims. Current warning formats, such as used by Tsunami Warning Centers, do not make good use of Internet technology and there is the potential for Social Networking to be used for emergencies.

About the speaker

Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington

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.

Tom is an Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society. He was elected a Fellow of the ACS for his work on Internet social policy. He is a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Society.

Resilient Community ICT for Disaster Management

  1. Community needs to be resilient (ASPI 2008)
  2. The Internet, with wireless can be made reliable
  3. Message formats must be suitable for the general pubic, not experts
  4. Techniques developed for access to the disabled can be applied to emergency messages

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released Taking a punch: Building a more resilient Australia 7 May 2008. It argued that recent disaster planning has overemphasized terrorist attacks, which are unlikely and more effort should be devoted to natural disasters, which occur frequently in Australia. The community needs to be resilient to deal with disaster themselves, rather than assuming that if the call 000 someone will come to help. However, the community also needs timely advice from emergency authorities on how to prepare for, act during and to recover from disasters. The Internet can be used in such communications, provided its use is planned.

Making a Reliable Internet

VOIP (voice over internet protocols) technology is becoming of much greater importance so there will be challenges in reaching those who rely on internet access for all communications. ...

From: Building a more resilient Australia, D. Templeman and A. Bergin, Aust. Strategic Policy Institute, 7 May 2008

...Commonwealth’s objectives for the NBN... consistent with national security, e-security and e-safety policy objectives including compliance with laws relating to law enforcement assistance and emergency call services; ...

From: RFP to Roll-out and Operate a National Broadband Network for Australia, ATM ID DCON/08/18, DBCDE, 11-Apr-2008

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute report points out that VOIP communications may make Australia more vulnerable. However, this does not appear to have been taken account in the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Request for Proposals to Roll-out and Operate a National Broadband Network for Australia. The RFP asks about provision of battery backup of the equipment and mentions emergency calls, but this is priority 16 out of 18.

The NBN process, if implemented as planned, will accelerate the replacement of the Public Switched Telephone Network with VoIP telephones. The NBN is not being planned to have the reliability of the PSTN it will be replacing. In addition most VoIP handsets, and the computer equipment they depend on, do not have any battery backup and will not function during a power failure.

State Based Telephone Systems Not a Solution

The Rudd Government will today introduce into Parliament amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1997 to enable access to the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND) for telephone-based emergency warning systems established by the States and Territories.

Access to the IPND will be provided through a new secure database which provides real-time access to up-to-date telephone numbers while protecting the identity of individuals. The Government will provide $11.3 million for this purpose. A request for tender to build the database will be issued shortly. ...

From: Rudd Government Implements COAG Agreement on Telephone-based Emergency Warning Systems, AG and Minister for Broadband, 23 February 2009

The federal government has announced legislation to enable states to implement telephone-based emergency warning systems. This ad-hoc arrangement is no substitute for a nationally coordinated system. The decision by the federal government not to build a national system risks lives and wastes resources. Any ICT professional involved in policy, planning or implementation of such systems needs to consider if they are acting ethically and lawfully. The "Nuremberg Defense" has limited applicability to professionals, who are required to act in the public interest, regardless of the instructions they are given by their superiors.

As an alternative strategy a national cell broadcast system could be built to send text warning messages to mobile phones in less time and at a lower cost than the IPND emergency database. It should be noted that even when completed, the database will not provide an emergency warning system, only a list of telephone numbers for state based systems to call.

Message formats for non-Experts

Map of earthquake 20 Feb 2008 08:09 UTC Off W Coast of Northern Sumatra from Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

Tsunami Warning for Indonesia

PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER/NOAA/NWS
ISSUED AT 0822Z 20 FEB 2008

THIS BULLETIN IS FOR ALL AREAS OF THE INDIAN OCEAN.

... A LOCAL TSUNAMI WATCH IS IN EFFECT ...

A TSUNAMI WATCH IS IN EFFECT FOR

INDONESIA

FOR OTHER AREAS OF THE INDIAN OCEAN REGION...THIS MESSAGE IS FOR
INFORMATION ONLY AT THIS TIME.

THIS BULLETIN IS ISSUED AS ADVICE TO GOVERNMENT AGENCIES. ONLY
NATIONAL AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO MAKE
DECISIONS REGARDING THE OFFICIAL STATE OF ALERT IN THEIR AREA AND
ANY ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN IN RESPONSE.

AN EARTHQUAKE HAS OCCURRED WITH THESE PRELIMINARY PARAMETERS

ORIGIN TIME - 0809Z 20 FEB 2008
COORDINATES - 2.8 NORTH 96.0 EAST
LOCATION - OFF W COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA
MAGNITUDE - 7.2

EVALUATION...

From: Local tsunami watch for Indonesia, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, 0822Z 20 FEB 2008.

Tsunami Warning Centers use the Internet to issue warning messages. However, the format of these predate the Internet and the web and are formatted for reading by experts, not the general public. It is assumed that the messages will be interpreted and reformatted for the public. However, this adds a delay to the process of the warning and its interpretation. There are attempts to provide new formats, such as maps for making information clearer, but these also tend to be designed for a technical audience.

ICT professionals can also improve on the previous analog telecommunications system to provide better facilities for emergency warnings and disaster recovery. However, emergency officials need to listen to what the ICT professionals tell them is possible and not just try and build digital versions of old analog and teletype systems. Both professions need to take the public into their confidence and treat the community as partners, not as victims.

As an example, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a local tsunami watch for Indonesia 0822Z 20 FEB 2008. The copy forwarded by the interim Indian Ocean Center is timed at one minute later 08:23:21 GMT. The watch was canceled at 0947Z 20 FEB 2008.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's system provided a map and details of the earthquake.

Accessible Web Design Applied to Emergencies

  1. W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
  2. W3C Markup Validation Service for XHTML Basic
  3. W3C MobileOK Basic checker service

The W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 1.0 provides advice on web design, based on the W3C - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0). These guidelines are usually used to make web pages suitable for people with a disability, such as the blind. However, the same techniques are intended for people who have limited Internet access, equipment or time to read the information. All of these apply to people and systems under stress due to an emergency.

The W3C Markup Validation Service for XHTML Basic is useful in checking web pages for embedded CSS and other HTML features which are not appropriate for efficient mobile pages.

As part of its Mobile Web Initiative, W3C have created a W3C MobileOK Basic checker service. This carries out some of the W3C mobileOK Basic Tests 1.0 against the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0.

The mobile web features can be used to create pages which are compatible with desktop computers, but will also function with mobile phones and other handheld devices. The web based systems can be designed to automatically adjust to the smaller screens and more limited bandwidth available.

Social Networking for Emergency Management

Google Friend Connect

Apply to emergency management?

An area in which there is considerable scope for development is in the use of social networking technology for corporate governance. On May 12, 2008 Google announced "Google Friend Connect, a service using emerging social networking standards to allow third party web sites to provide social networking services. Currently this service is mostly confined to Google social networking products and aimed at non-business use. However, these show potential for expansion into business use.

The same standards as used for social networking, such as: OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial, could be applied to corporate systems, using data access APIs as used by Facebook, Google, and MySpace. Management discussions could then take place using these tools, in much the same way social discussions now do. This would provide the rapid online communication and tools for group working, but with full audit trails complaint with government standards.

Social networking can also be used by non-government emergency workers and by the general pubic. In his talk to the MobileMonday Global Summit, May 19, 2008, Madanmohan Rao suggested a "mobile mandate"for mobile phone use in disasters. He argued that mobiles are the most important communications devices, with SMS warnings but also softer applications.

One example was using SMS to send funds from Malaysia, the SMH asking for SMS about friends in the disaster, Chinese text messages to reassure about aftershocks to avoid panic, China mobile subscribers sending donations. In the case of recent terrorist attacks the phones on the victims were used to contact relatives.

More Information

Slides for these notes are also available.

Copyright © 2009 Tom Worthington (24 February 2009)

Creative Commons License
Community Warning Systems - Balancing Technology and Reliability by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.tomw.net.au/technology/admin/.

Web page by