Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An Idea

Let me tell you about my friend Tessa.

We met in a very modern way. Either she linked to me or I linked to her. It was so long ago in internet terms, I do not remember.

But soon we were commenting on blogs of common interest, meeting each other at geeky social networking happy hours and following each other on twitter.

I resisted twitter at first. Being a very private person, the idea of people following my every move seemed repulisive. Hell, half the time I don't tell my family where I am.

But I did eventually sign up and reluctantly began giving vague updates on my whereabouts. The moment of enlightenment came on the day I saw several friends say "hey we're all meeting at such and such for a beer". Sold!

But back to Tessa. As I was discovering the possibilities of impromptu drinking binges, Tessa was expandng her network of followers at a frightening speed. Like someone creating a patchwork quilt of people, she collected up aging hipsters, indie music slingers, nerds, engineers, entrepeneuers and even a degenerate writer or two.

As can happen with the growing fog of age, I didn't see the potential of the technology. It certainly was cool for meeting new people but that was about it, right? (Sidenote: I also said the same thing about text messaging when I was actually in the text messaging industry. I know.)

Perhaps it was because she is younger or because of her skills as a High Priestess of SEO, but Tessa saw much more. What she needed was a moment and then along came the great gas crisis of 2008.

Ironically, Tessa doesn't own a car. A favor to get gas for her mother's car carried her to the Lindbergh Quik Trip in the middle of the panic. Habit led her to report the craziness on twitter and then instinct led her to do just a bit more.

She created a hashtag. By simply adding the tag #atlgas to all of her updates, she was able to create a quickly searchable database of gas station updates. Then she lit up her network. She implored people to add the tag to their updates. When people forgot, she gently chided them.

Then something wonderful happened. Her network lit up their networks. Then those networks lit up their networks. Within days, thousands of Atlantans were reporting the status of dozens of gas stations. The reporting was so speedy and effecient, it was linked to by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and then WSB. Tessa's network now reached the entire metro area.

Her accomplishment was a startling display of the power of social networks and the idea of the individual who recognizes that power. The feat did not go unnoticed and she is featured in this week's Creative Loafing.

In the brief piece, she said she was "disappointed that neither city nor state officials have harnessed Twitter to either gather or spread information about gas availability to the community" and that intrigued me.

Today, I had my moment and finally realized the potential Tessa sees clearly.

As I sat watching some horrible movie on television, the screen suddenly went dark and that horrible familiar buzzing filled the room. Some poor child in Burke County had been kidnapped and the powers that be fired off an Amber alert triggering the Emergency Response System to interrupt every television channel with details of the snatch.

Think about it for a second. How many people are like me, sitting at home in the middle of the day and how many people are chained to a cubicle in some corporate drone farm surreptitiously refreshing twitter every couple of minutes?

Why aren't Amber alerts on twitter? Why aren't water contamination warnings on twitter? Why isn't every emergency alert conceivable on twitter?

It's as simple as creating an account and giving some intern the task of updating the stream any time something comes across the desk. Cost? Practically nil. Benefit? Well, Tessa's experiment showed the potential for the system to inform the public in a rapid and effective manner - possibly faster than traditional means.

And she's even said she'd provide tutorials for those interested.

So. Anyone interested in a practically cost free system to keep the public informed of emergencies?


Sara said...

I was an even slower convert to Twitter than you were, and now when I think about all the potential uses for this relatively simple technology I get dizzy.

Amber Rhea said...

I have a personal rule of thumb. Any technology I find myself snarking about, I will be completely devoted to within 6 months to a year. It happened with blogging, podcasting, Flickr, and then Twitter.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the awesome article James. I really was happy and surprised to see that it took off as well as it did. I'm waiting by my inbox to see if Shirley or Sonny decide to take me up on my offer ;)

Grayson: Atlanta, GA said...

Someone (Tessa, you, me, any one) should pick up the phone (forget trying to find the right email), call APD and go over there and insist they have a Twitter pow-wow. I have Twittered Amber alerts before, but only once. Rest I hear hours after the fact, or not at all. Try to reach someone in cyber crimes unit? Don't know if there is such a thing. Once I had to report an online threat to APD, but the officer didn't know what a blog was. I can't think of any better use of our collective social media know-how than by offering APD a free seminar, for instance.

Anonymous said...

@Grayson I am all about it. Let's do this. You have me fired up to do this.

Aerodad said...

I remember wonderments about such Twittermergencies after the VT shooting. Though personally I was still more in favor of cellular broadcasting, b/c at the time I was still unconvinced Twitter would reach critical mass. Duhr.

I'm still in favor of emergency cellular broadcasting, anyway. Danger is often geo-localized, so what better replacement for an old tornado siren than a cell tower?

Amber Rhea said...

Along those same lines, here's a cool site I learned about at BlogOrlando, in order to report violence in Kenya and other African countries:

griftdrift said...

Shelby, I see them as parallel tracks. Its not a matter of substitution but addition of a new feature. And may I remind you of that bizarre evacuation SMS you once received at Ga Tech? That system has limitations too. But if we layer multiple channels we might bring more clarity.

Static Electrician said...

There are at least two reasons why a public entity would not want to do this: a) it doesn't look professional and b) they have no control over it.

Let us assume that the city of Blah creates an account and starts posting public service info on there. Has twitter become an official announcement organ of Blah City? does Blah City have the responsibility to ensure that twitter stays up (solely so that users can be kept updated?).

And how do you decide what's newsworthy? Your #atlgas is a nobrainer, and #atlamber but #atlgardening and #atltownmeeting, #atltraffic etc. Combine with the desire on the part of many local governments to keep some news not-exactly-current (#atlcrime -- does it report a murder that just happened? and let's not get into #atlsexoffenders yet).

Articles of incorporation often have set rules as to how a city/org operates and what they are responsible for -- ties to a private company have to be vetted via a quite frankly brutal amount of legal hassle ("what if Twitter decides to endorse political candidate X or to make December "Twitter's pro-life/pro-choice awareness month" etc etc).

I'm not part of a government (and don't live in Atlanta), but it's not quite cut and dry for a large public org like it is for a private individual.