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Smart Mobs to the Rescue

The Wall Street Journal has an article in today's edition on Smart Mobs as a crisis response tool:

Despite hopes that flashy services will encourage Americans to get on the text-messaging bandwagon, the SMS culture hasn't caught on here yet. But if it does, it could help tackle a problem that has the government vexed: how to disseminate helpful information during a crisis. The government unveiled its Ready.gov site last week, which included some helpful tips but also some seemingly Cold War-era notions, such as (and we're guessing this is what they meant) if a nuclear weapon is detonated on your right, start running left. (Read the actual advice.) There's also the problem that even if you follow Ready.gov's advice and stockpile water, food, a long-sleeve shirt, moist towelettes, matches, a compass, signal flares, and so on, there's a good chance you won't be at home during an attack. You might be at work, in your car, on the subway.

This is the kind of situation in which a smart mob might come to the rescue. As Tech Central Station noted last week, it was wirelessly connected people that helped prevent further destruction on Sept. 11, 2001:

The only effective action to avoid further carnage came not from the Air Force jets that were scrambled, but from the passengers on Flight 93 whose relatives called on their cellphones to describe what had already happened.

The piece further notes that when cellphone circuits became jammed that day in New York, certain hand-held gadgets sending small packets of information -- Blackberrys, for instance -- were able to get messages through.

If a new terrorist attack comes -- or a major blizzard or hurricane, for that matter -- many people may not have access to television, the Web or radio, and in any case the information may be overly broad or unhelpful. But friends on Interstate 80 reporting via SMS that a bridge is still open because they just drove over it, or that a relative is safe because they just saw her, or that it's safe to go home because they're plopped on their couch watching "Alias" -- this is helpful, trusted information.

We jokingly suggested back in August that the country doesn't need America's Most Wanted to catch criminals when it has spam. This applies even better to smart mobs: With cellphone-location services in the works (which we grant have Big Brother-ish questions we won't address here) tailored alerts could be sent to users in a certain area during a crisis. London already has a service that will alert subscribers to any nearby attacks, based on their home and work postal codes. Combining the official word with messages from friends on the street would be potent in a crisis.

I think the authors are on an interesting track here, but the last paragraph worries me. Based on its performance to date, the last thing I'd want to do would be to give the Department of Homeland Security my mobile IM address. "We're at Orange! Buy duct tape!" "Down to Yellow. Sell short your duct tape stock."

What would be even worse -- and is imaginable given the current administration -- would be a government mandate that all mobile IM-type devices -- anything capable of receiving SMS, MMS, or IMs on any major system -- must be linked to a government alert network, with no blocking ability possible. I almost hate to mention it for fear of giving a bad idea to the wrong people...

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