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3/11/2011
02:01 PM
Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
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The Promise -- And Danger -- Of Social Networking During Disaster

It's time to consider a social networking-based Emergency Broadcast System

As we watch the tsunami news roll out across the world, it is clear that social networking is increasingly playing a role that was at one time owned by national emergency broadcast services. But social networking, while fast, has neither the urgency nor the quality it needs to fulfill that role, and it may eventually, at some future disaster, increase the loss of life rather than reduce it.

Currently, social media platforms, mostly Twitter and Facebook, are performing the role of news service for an increasingly large group of avid watchers. These sites are also increasingly consumed from smartphones, which are more likely to be carried with us than radios or televisions. Finally, even on the reporting side, social networking has an advantage because people with the ability to take pictures and provide commentary are vastly more numerous than reporters who generally have to be dispatched to the site.

So it is potentially better for both delivery of information and the more timely identification of a disaster than more traditional forms of media. While the cell towers have been made more robust over time so that messages can often get through even if power is eliminated, there is no common notification program in place that will alert a cell phone user when an emergency broadcast is arriving. In addition, while virtually all of the new smartphones are location-aware, the ability to couple an alert to the location of the individual isn't yet in place, either, so that if you put out an alert, say about a tsunami about to hit California, someone in New York would be awakened as well and likely to stop trusting the alerting system even if it did exist.

As a result, there will likely be victims who will be found with the alerts unopened that could have saved their lives on the phones they were carrying.

Without any effort to assure the quality of an alert coming in, anyone -- including a terrorist or criminal -- could create a viral message that incites panic. Recall that Orson Wells accidentally did that decades ago with his Halloween broadcast of "War of the Worlds." Without a way to verify the message, people could be herded into killing zones or toward danger either on purpose or accidentally by someone who is simply confused.

This goes a long way toward saying we have a critical need for a new Emergency Broadcast System that embraces the benefits of social networking and makes it an even more effective tool without turning it into a weapon or a problem for the folks who are increasingly dependent on it.

We have a tendency to jump to relying on tools before we fully understand their risks or implications. This one is too important and becoming too powerful to leave unchanged until the typical related disaster points out its shortcomings.

-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.

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