Social media aids emergency services and empowers the public
An international team has developed a system that can exploit the widespread use of mobile electronic devices and social media to improve the official response to emergencies and other crises. An initial prototype has already proved very effective.
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The EU-funded iSAR+ project has shown that mobile devices and online systems can be integrated with existing emergency response systems for the two-way flow of information between emergency teams and the public, for the benefit of both. By sharing messages, emergency teams can get valuable information from people on the ground at incidents, while the public can receive advice, such as on what to do to make themselves safe and how to help fellow citizens or the emergency services.
For example, citizens who report seeing fire, smoke or injured people, can help emergency services establish what is happening. First responders may also gather information from social media.
The 19 members of the iSAR+ consortium tested a prototype technology platform for the system at an emergency command exercise in Portugal – with great success, according to the project team. Associated guidelines and tools for integrating the system into existing emergency response operations were also put to the test.
One spur for iSAR+, which began in early 2013, was the growing number of sophisticated communication devices carried by the public. The project partners also wanted to develop Europe’s information society further and to empower citizens during emergencies. This empowerment also extends to those with hearing impairments, who would be able to send text messages to the emergency services instead of calling.
"The information gathered on social networks and evaluated by our system was crucial for a faster and more efficient reaction by the authorities. For example, people provide us with geo-referenced information and some details like the number of injured people or problems accessing the accident site," said João Belfo, the iSAR+ project coordinator.
From top-down to two-way communication
The iSAR+ platform has been developed for a wide range of public protection and disaster relief services — including law enforcement, search and rescue and medical help.
Traditionally, such services have operated with a top-down approach, with the public seen purely as recipients of information on a need-to-know basis.
In contrast, the iSAR+ approach is to allow sharing of information and collaboration between official services and individuals. That would let officials search, locate and communicate with the public, typically by exploiting the mobile devices now carried by much of the population.
The iSAR+ team also considered ethical issues, including the rights to privacy and public security, and the relevant legal framework. For example, image and video processing and, especially, text mining could undermine privacy rights guaranteed in the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.
It might not be possible for a citizen to provide consent for use of information posted online during a disaster or to judge the consequences of providing consent. However, according to an iSAR+ study, the EU Data Protection Directive would seem to provide consent for such information to be used if for search and rescue efforts.
The team nevertheless recognises a major problem; those who are injured or deceased are not able to expressly consent to the distribution of their images.
The team believes that any bypassing of well-established ethical and legal principles by disaster response agencies and public authorities needs to be legitimate while safeguarding the vital interests of people affected by a disaster. Moreover, misuse of information could affect the credibility of iSAR+.
"From an ethical point of view, it seems perfectly acceptable that fundamental rights … may be violated so that lives can be saved," says the iSAR+ study. "However it is essential to guarantee that if the data is collected to be used in search and rescue efforts, it may not be used for any other purpose."
One of the main features of iSAR+ is that it can be easily used in conjunction with the diverse existing crisis-management systems now in use around Europe and the rest of the world.
The prototype iSAR+ system was tested in an exercise in Portugal involving local security organisations. On top of being a means to enable communication between the public and the authorities, iSAR+ was also used as an information management system, typically to manage resources including ambulances and other vehicles, to control traffic, to call for back-up and to define restricted areas.
The consortium is now prototyping a version intended to optimise the use of resources by emergency teams and security forces during emergencies.