Urban Edginess

Where the City Meets its Future.

Month: September, 2012

How Modern Communications Technology Makes You and Your Community Safer


English: Coachella Valley © 2004 Matthew Trump

English: Coachella Valley © 2004 Matthew Trump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earthquake Preparedness, First Responders and Limited-Access Hybrid Communications Systems

“Articles about advances in personal electronic devices often seem focused on frivolity–playing games, seeing where your friends are eating dinner, and watching DVDs–but the real news is that these technological advances also provide valuable tools for personal and public safety.” — From a personal communication with Ruth Galanter, former Los Angeles City Council member.

A few days ago the Smart + Connected Communities Institute referenced a Berkman Center paper regarding Lessons Learned from the Great Earthquake. Included in the lessons learned was the significant effect on recovery created by destruction of or damage to electronic and other data caches. The paper urged, among other things, creation of a collaborative network to protect valuable information infrastructure in a crisis.

On September 12, 2012, California’s Seismic Safety Commission along with its technology partner Seismic Warning Systems Inc., took the initial steps to install such a system to deal with the needs of first responders to earthquake disasters in the highly seismically active Coachella Valley in California.

The system requires placing sensors every 6-12 kilometers or less along selected faults. These sensors will analyze p-waves (nondestructive waves that precede the more destructive waves in earthquakes) and, following detection of large earthquakes, send alerts to devices in major-emergency response facilities such as fire stations, public health facilities, communication facilities and the like. The devices, in turn, will pre-operate those essential functions often damaged when an earthquake hits, such as opening fire station apparatus room doors, turning on lights and displaying warnings of public safety and utility dispatch monitors, closing off gas mains, turning on emergency electric generators and so forth. Furthermore, it allows emergency services personnel to receive the early warnings by PA systems in their buildings to allow them to begin their preparation to respond to the event. Early warnings can also be sent to emergency personnel through their personal communications devices. (Variations of this system protecting individual buildings and related sites have been installed in several places around the country, including, for instance, on the Cisco corporate campus in San Jose, California and its day care center as well.)

In addition, as the Japanese study recommends, mechanisms for protecting the data in major data centers can be installed that automatically trigger data-saving measures and customer-transparent operations, such as switching over to redundant systems. Key personnel can then be notified that such operations have begun so they can take whatever additional actions may be required.

These types of pre-disaster management triggering systems, when combined with personal communication technology, could be called “limited-access hybrid communications systems.” Access could / would be “limited” to a particular set of users (e.g., executives, emergency personnel, facilities managers). “Hybrid” in the sense that the mechanical / electrical systems and the communications systems are intended to operate in tandem. (Of course, one could argue that a mapping application used to find driving directions becomes a hybrid system or perhaps a “mash-up” when the user jumps into his car and drives to his destination–or uses GPS while driving–but it is difficult to classify the user as a member of significantly limited user group…. Anyway, if anyone has the need for a better definition and has some ideas about it, I am all ears.)

Another example of a somewhat similar of system but focused more an individual property and personal security would be those home and facility security systems that notifies security personnel and the property owner via their mobile devices if something on the property has gone amiss — such as a break-in, a fire or even an appliance left running while an owner is on vacation — and allows for the remote operation of various systems on the property from the mobile devices.

Many medical and emergency public service personnel today carry smart phones, pads and notebook computers containing applications that assist them in carrying out their duties. Although they are clearly trained in the skills required for dealing with emergencies in the field, the amount of information required to manage complex modern emergency field equipment and execute the various protocols for dealing with the variety of medical issues they may confront while dealing with the other effects of the crises, (e.g. fires, structural stability and the like) makes reliance on human memory for procedures and protocols unsatisfactory, if not downright dangerous. The time pressures these individuals work under makes referring to handbooks and texts unwieldy and time-consuming even if they were able to carry around all the volumes required to cover every eventuality they may meet.

To deal with this problem, applications have been developed covering a host of those emergency protocols and procedures. These are not simply informational applications, like for example a handbook digitalized on to a smart phone, but often are applications capable of guiding and responding to the emergency personnel’s real time needs during operation of the equipment and execution of the protocols that may be necessary to save a life.

For example, the American Heart Association has produced a number of applications carried by many emergency services and medical personnel that contain protocols, procedures and check lists for operation of appropriate equipment and treatment of cardiac problems in the field. Many more applications like this exist and their number is increasing, especially in emergency medical and disaster prevention and recovery activities.

This appears to be a growing and welcome phenomenon. In fact, I recently heard that there may be applications under development by several international organizations that could assist medical personnel in treating biohazards in the field to stem their spread across national boundaries.

As Ruth Galanter mentions, discussion about modern mobile communication devices and their associated applications often focus on social media, games, and other ways to simplify some daily activities even if they do not necessarily simplify daily life itself. But the ability of these devices — often used in concert with various Internet applications–to extend the range and efficiency of various critical, disparate systems — some hard-wired and some virtual should not be overlooked in community planning to address community development and maintenance needs. No longer just an issue of budgets, personnel and existing infrastructure, community and emergency response planners need to ask also if application of modern communication technology can make whatever it is they are trying to prepare for simpler, quicker, cheaper and more effective.

When the forest fire advances on your house and you are packing the car to flee, you really won’t care about playing games! You will want the Fire Department rushing to your aid and the comfort of knowing they know what to do when they get there. Technology can take care of this.



Conflict Resolution in the Age of Mobile Communication Technology: Can it happen?

Simulation - 8

Simulation – 8 (Photo credit: onestudentry)

Over two decades ago I had the opportunity to manage a governmental entity that, among other things, was charged with resolving conflicts between development, community and environmental concerns. We developed a process, relatively novel at the time, encouraging those involved or concerned (later to be called “stakeholders”) to solve their disagreements among themselves.

We soon discovered that in order for the process to work effectively it required a team of technicians capable of immediately turning a suggestion into a visual representation. Also included in the team was someone capable of converting the discussions as they occurred into attractive visuals and organized notes for all to see. We also drew upon a compendium of the financial and fiscal resources. Knowledge of fiscal resource limits and how to apply them created a type of gaming situation that forced the participants to consider the same type of tradeoffs that government and private interests must make when they need to decide what can be done and how long will it take. Finally, the process required an entity, in this case our agency, that could more or less on the spot, make commitments to carry out at least the initial elements of the agreed-upon program.

What surprised me most was not that we were successful in almost all cases, as we were, but that despite what was suggested by the heated rhetoric expressed before regulatory or legislative bodies or in the media, the actual content of the disagreements among the contending camps of interest were often rather slight.

Although conflict resolution techniques and design charrettes continue to be used almost everywhere, our particular intensive program eventually fell into disuse. That was because the urban areas included in our jurisdiction were limited in number, and once the specific issues in conflict were resolved in these communities, they remained solved for a decade or longer or until new conflicts arose. Also the process was management and personnel intensive and inevitably such activities in any organization eventually are replaced by a more procedural and careerist focus.

Spending on information and communications tec...

Spending on information and communications technology in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fast forward to today. Modern communications technology and social networking appear to be transforming almost everything we do, from how and where we work to how we entertain ourselves and socialize.

In community and urban development we now have all the information we could want at our fingertips although not necessarily organized and usable. ( A deficiency that a site like the Smart+Connected Communities Institute seeks to remedy).

Simple Internet research shows that we have a plethora of online communities dedicated to community action of one kind or another. Yet what happens when these online communities conflict with one another? As anyone who has actually been involved in assisting in the resolution of significant conflicts knows, good intentions and talking things out are not always enough. Not only must thoughts and ideas be converted into a communications medium through which each participant has the same understanding as everyone else, but immediate unbiased response on the technical facts must be available if the enthusiasm and commitment to the process is not to wither and die waiting for it. Finally, the hard facts of the limits must be available in a usable form to the participants.

A diagram of the dispute resolution process, f...

A diagram of the dispute resolution process, for both content and user conduct issues. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Social media, in regards to community planning, provides an advanced platform for sharing information and ideas and encouraging coöperation and, should the participants agree, collective action.

Modern communications technology and social networks offer the promise of real resolution of community conflicts. Nevertheless, it remains a promise that needs to be addressed and nurtured.

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