Why 9-1-1 Can’t Save You

John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” (May 15, 2015) described the state of our 911 call grid. Much like the blog I wrote about the state of American infrastructure, our emergency response capabilities are crumbling.

  1. Most call centers have inaccurate maps and/or can’t trace cell phone locations causing them to struggle to find many victims. The FCC estimates that improved locating software might save as many as 10, 120 lives annually (3:00). Indeed, 10-95% of cell phone users run the risk of not being found in a timely manner (4:23). This is even more alarming given the fact that the Red Cross estimates that 74% of adults expect help to arrive in under 3 hours after sending a tweet.
  2. We don’t have a national or–in some cases–even a state-wide 911 response system. Each county or jurisdiction is responsible for handling their own 911 calls which makes for an extremely fragmented system (6:53). In some areas, neighboring call centers can’t meaningfully talk to one another; obviously, a big problem in a disaster.
  3. Furthermore, several states don’t have a call center at all. For instance, Washington State’s 911 calls get routed to Colorado. This is often par for the course with internet and enterprise technology, but when there was an outage at the Colorado center (April 10, 2014), Washington did not have a back up. The center was down for 3 hours and Washington lost 4,300 calls, some of which resulted in death.
  4. Call centers don’t have very modern IP networks (8:08), instead they mainly use outdated, hardwired phones (like from the ’70s). An IP network allows computers to talk to one another either in a private network (sharing files between your phone and your computer) or in a public one (the internet). Updating would allow call centers to receive text messages, social media messages, and videos besides allowing for a more robust, resilient system. Oliver makes the point that video or text could be life saving in situations like domestic violence where a phone call is too conspicuous. Emergency Managers additionally know that in a disaster, text messages often get through the crowded phone lines easier than phone calls do.
  5. Most call centers are underfunded and understaffed (9:33) which means that victims may have to wait on the line for the next operator or that the call center can’t upgrade their mapping or cellular tech.
  6. Compounding the problem is rising call volume (10:44) because of the ubiquity of cell phones and butt dials. 911 call centers simply cannot handle normal, daily call volumes; during a disaster they will be absolutely drowned. As this CBS report points out: wireless carriers have the technology to support connectivity during a disaster. The problem continues to be the overwhelmed 911 call centers.

Oliver sums up his report with “…until we’re explicitly confronted with the challenges facing 911, it seems we’re not going to do anything about them” (13:31). But I, like you, don’t wish people to die in order for change to happen.


Wrestling with Slacktivsm

I started this blog post intending to publish a pithy New Year’s “let’s all promise to not do this anymore” post. But it seems to have outgrown my assumptions. Don’t you just love-hate that?

Without further preamble, let me introduce you to an ex-petpeeve of mine: Slacktivism also known as hashtag activism, armchair activism, or clicktivism. Slacktivism is when you support a cause by promoting awareness via the internet–especially social media. It’s meant to have a negative connotation invoking images of self-involved, ill-informed, quickly bored social butterflies flitting from cause to cause for the joy of attention. (Yuck). Slacktivism is Mo’vember, Pink Hair October, #bringbackourgirls, Ice Bucket Challenge. (Or is it? Back to that in a second.)


Here’s what a variety experts say about slacktivism.

  1. The Washington Post reports on a new study which states that public “token displays of support” seem to make more of a difference when the supporter has previously made a private commitment. If the supporter’s first act of support is public, it turns out, the support is shallow and short-lived. The researchers suggest that it has to do with your perception of your own identity. When you support something privately, it is internally motivated–you begin to see yourself as someone who supports Campaign A and will take further actions (possibly public) to be consistent with that belief. When you support something publicly first, you haven’t internalized the motivation to the same degree and it’s easier to abandon the support when Campaign B comes along.
  2. Rabbi Mitelman at The Huffington Post found something similar in internal consistency vs. moral balancing. Internal Consistency says that when you do good things you begin to think of yourself as a good person and will continue to do more good things. Moral Balancing, on the other hand, says that when you do a good thing, you feel like you’ve done your good deed for the day and will give yourself permission to NOT do something else. Here, we can begin to see why some people like Slacktivism and others don’t.
  3. Huffington Post goes on to note some pros and cons to Slacktivism
    1. Pro: low cost. Con: low benefit. Since Slacktivistic activities are by nature really easy to do, it doesn’t cost the supporter much (if anything) to do it. Change my profile picture? Done. Upload a picture with a hashtag? Check. BUT, since there’s very little cost (i.e. sacrifice), there’s very little emotional investment and it’s easy for supporters to get poached by a newer campaign.
    2. Pro: raises awareness. Con: doesn’t raise money or volunteers (unless you’re smart or lucky or both… We’re looking at YOU, Ice Bucket Challenge). Many critics dismiss awareness as pretty much useless because it so often doesn’t translate into anything tangible. This HuffPost article states that it can take up to 7-8 exposures to an issue before an individual takes action. Which is a lot of exposures, but not unattainable if you have a motivated, vocal support base. As Rabbi Mitelman states, “Slacktivism does help…a little. Sometimes.” Seems like a balance is the best policy here.
    3. Pro: Campaigns are easy to understand. Con: Campaigns might be oversimplified.
    4. Pro: pictures and hashtags can be uniting and powerful. Con: hashtags can be co-opted. 

I have a lot to say on #3, 4, but first we have to talk about networks, adaptability, and meaningful data.


A fractal is a shape which repeats for infinity.
A fractal is a shape which repeats for infinity. Courtesy of Jonathan A. Reese

There’s a set of theories called Complex Adaptive Systems which really deserves its own blog post (stay tuned) because its vast and complex (heh) and talks about a lot of things. Nutshell: Complex Adaptive Systems is a way of describing interactions between networks. Networks can be between delivery systems (mail, hospitals, stock markets), between people (family, corporations, countries, internet friends), and between people and systems (bureaucracy, business investments, wars). Networks are nested like a fractal–You can zoom in to any level and find a series of relationships/connections. These theories work better to describe globalism than our previous ones.

There are two really cool things about networks. A. They generate a LOT of information. B. They can respond to changes really fast making them flexible and adaptable (pretty much the exact opposite of government which is based on a bureaucratic model. I’m serious: government has it’s own literal theories, you guys. I learned it in school.) The two really UNcool things about networks is that they generate a LOT of information–so much so that it’s hard to sift through all of it. B. The network is SO flexible that it can be really hard to get everyone working in the same direction (really bad for armies which is why bureaucracy still exists). So, like your brain, the network is sensing out the environment, receiving and generating lots of information most of which is what theorists call noise or meaningless data. Like the fact that your butt is touching a chair. Your brain knows it, but it mostly doesn’t care. Until your chair tips, suddenly the fact that your butt is touching a chair and moving is salient data or important to your brain. So…the thing that makes a network powerful is meaning. When all the nodes (participants or things) in a network care about the same thing, they work together in a synergistic fashion that is more powerful than if they worked alone. They do this by sharing information about changes in the environment (stuff outside the network that often affects the network. If a network is figure, the environment is ground–to use an art metaphor.) By repeating the meaning to the rest of the network which both recruits new participants and encourages those already participating.

We saw this work at Arab Spring. We saw this work at the Ice Bucket Challenge. Social media creating real, tangible change. Why didn’t we see it work so much with #bringbackourgirls? or Kony 2012?

Slacktivism + Networks = ?

Ok…now we can talk about #3, 4 from above.

Critics of Slacktivism–especially the hashtag variant–claim that hashtags harm campaigns more than they benefit them with awareness in two ways. First, they oversimplify a complex problem into an easy good-against-evil paradigm (once participants understood more about the situation on the ground, support for Kony 2012 dwindled). Oversimplification is damaging, they say because the actions that the eager, ill informed support base promote might not be the best solution. Or the only solution. Or their simply might not be a solution. Or it might be a long time in coming. (And the social media crowd is not known for their patience.) Secondly, hashtags can be co-opted. Usually in a bad way. This is what damaged the credibility (and usefulness?) of #bringbackourgirls as supporters began to bicker on the best way to show support with the tag. And this is what caused Dr. OZ to duck and cover when his critics took control of his tag.

But what if…

If a picture is worth a thousand words than a hashtag is worth a thousand pictures. No other means of conveying information has the ability of nesting data the way hashtags do (except for maybe poetry). Yes, hashtags can oversimplify a narrative. BUT they can also become iconic–shorthand for a complex story. Hashtags could be the modern equivelant of this:

"Tank Man" 1989, Tienanmen Square. Thanks to ABC.
“Tank Man” 1989, Tienanmen Square. Courtesy of ABC.


And yes, hashtags can be co-opted. We might never have a solution for that. BUT their co-optability also means that they’re inherently flexible. Which makes them a good tool for networks. In a world which changes so quickly, an adaptable tool could give the campaign much-needed longevity.

Let me end with a quote which I think sums up our responsibility as good citizens of the world and of the internet. Taken from Lina Srivastava at HuffPost:

“Is hashtag activism effective or not? To have comprehensive understanding of this kind of activism, a range of questions needs to be explored: What is the value of imagery in today’s social media networks where a glut of images exists? What is the role of social media in addressing injustice on a global scale? Whose participation is important, or determinative? What standards can we use to gauge the success of a social media hashtag campaign?”

Slacktivism or Social Activism? Tell us where you stand below.

“Growing Pains”: History’s Theory of Everything

There’s a huge push in my Emergency Management classes to ingrain us with community-building values. Over and over I’m told (and I believe) that 1. the best way to respond to an emergency is to let local leaders direct the resources, 2. that the best way to keep people safe is to make sure they’re connected to each other* and to processes/institutions (neighborhood watches, hospitals), and 3. that the best way to prepare for or rebuild after a disaster is to be responsive to the ones who have to live in the houses you’re building**.

It turns out to be a very democratizing process if you do it right. And it also happens to synergize very well with the internet and social media. (Think about how Twitter aided the democratizing process in Arab Spring).

The following blog post from Raptitude summarizes a “Grand Historical Theory” that explains why community building is so important and so powerful. [And secondarily, why I, for one, am hugely in favor of net neutrality. Allowing corporations to control the speed of the internet for profit would create a hierarchy which would degrade the powerful crowd-sourcing democracy that’s happening on the internet.] I’m going to give a bullet pointed version of Raptitude’s summary (whoa, so meta), but I highly urge you to read the article. It’s short, interesting, and well written.

1. Early man roamed about in small groups where everyone grew up with everyone else and understood all the viewpoints in their society (represented by knowing each person very well). Decisions were made by consensus–a long, boring, but equal process.

2. As we grew into cities and towns, societies were too large for everyone to know or even understand everyone else so hierarchies formed in order to organize society. This silenced all except for the those at the top. When they wanted to make a new society (America, for instance), it was those at the top who made the laws and processes of getting work done.

3. But the printing press and now the internet allowed anyone (almost–although it’s getting more and more accessible) to write and disseminate their viewpoint and opinions. We began to reincorporate society… or to put it another way, we began to dismantle hierarchy. Which has been painful (French revolution, American revolution, civil rights, LGBT marriage equality, etc.) But it’s happening and it’s awesome and we should encourage that.

Because it makes our world safer, healthier, and better.

* So there was this study done of two neighborhoods who experienced a tremendous heat wave. In the wealthier neighborhood the death rate was much higher than in the other poor neighborhood (very unusual). Authorities couldn’t explain it until they realized that the poor neighborhood was made up of minority groups who had stronger ties with one another. They would look in on one another to make sure people were ok. Elders in the wealthier neighborhood didn’t have anyone to call 9-1-1 if they collapsed from heat stroke. So connecting people to people keeps everyone safe by leveraging social ties to get information disseminated.

** In an earthquake zone in India, NGOs used to come in and build villages with cinder block houses. Sturdy, square. But the square huts fell over in the next earthquake while the more traditional mud huts stood firm. It took a while for NGOs to figure out that the simple mud huts stood during earthquakes while Western styled houses–though cement– fell because the huts were round and could resist the movement of the earth in every direction. Squares get warped. Since then EMs have learned that you can’t just import solutions out of context. You have to listen to the community because they know these things.

Disaster & Development: Joy Sun on TED

Development is inextricably intertwined with Emergency Management

In my last post, I mentioned a little bit about how Emergency Management is affected by different fields–especially Development. It turns out that the people most vulnerable to disasters are often the poorest people because they can’t afford to live in safe areas or in safe homes. On the other side of the coin, when disasters do strike an area, the disaster often damages the poor household more than the rich one. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you are a very poor tenant farmer in Africa. You can’t afford to live on the high-quality land, so you have to tend rockier soil on a hillside. You have one donkey with which to plow and a mud hut. Over the years, more and more people have cut down more and more trees so now, when a heavy rain hits, the water rushes down the slopes unimpeded and washes your crops away (and the top inch of soil which is the best part. So now the soil will yield even less and you will have to clear more trees in order to get enough profit to survive. But that’s a sustainability problem.) Without those crops, you will starve this winter, so you have to sell your donkey in order to survive. Furthermore, part of your mud hut was damaged.The next spring, you don’t have a donkey so you can’t till as much so you don’t harvest as much so you are even less secure than you were. The next flood might kill you. (As it is, you might have to pull your children out of school–if they were lucky enough to go–so that they can help you farm. And an illiterate family has more problems down the road. That’s a different kind of development problem.)  Meanwhile, your slightly richer neighbor–who has two oxen which are much better at plowing and a cement house instead of a mud hut is left with an undamaged house and perhaps one ox instead of no donkey. Which is a much better place to be.

Disasters and development feed each other. For better or worse.
Disasters and development feed each other. For better or worse.

These principles can be scaled up to country or regional levels. A poor government often can’t invest in good public infrastructure like high-quality dams, more hospitals, or public awareness campaigns. They might struggle to house the poorest of the poor or refugees or provide security for their citizenry. (Refugees are a whole ‘nother deeply vulnerable population that we can talk about later. Violence profoundly affects both development and crisis management).

So what does that have to do with this video you posted?

Traditionally, development and humanitarian aid has been of the “teach a man to fish” variety. For good reason. Professional aid supported by donors (like you or even banks and countries) builds or props up needed infrastructure like wells, clinics, vaccines, family planning, education, and food security. These are things that don’t get done if you simply give cash to poor people.

But, research is beginning to favor micro-investments, direct cash donations, and the like. It turns out that poor people who receive cash overwhelmingly use it to better their lives. They do not drink or smoke it away. They do not buy luxuries, like we have thought for so many years.

[I’m sure you can think of someone from your neighborhood who is on food stamps and just bought a new car. I can too. But those people aren’t the extremely chronic poor that we’re talking about. There will always be abusers of the system. But there will always be people who need a little outside help too. (Personally, I find it easier to let God or the Universe or someone else judge between them.) But let’s leave that argument to the side for now.]

Here is an experienced aid worker describing how direct cash transfers can be better than third-party directed aid. 1. Families buy what they really need (not what you think they need)–like maternity care or home improvements (which make them less vulnerable to calamity). 2. Much lower administrative costs mean more money gets to the users. 3. Cash infusions are often better than donations. This is true during disasters too. People like the Red Cross and your local disaster coordinator would much rather receive cash than donated clothing because we can use the cash to buy exactly what we need (like lumber or satellite phones for rescue teams or pens) and we can buy it from local businesses (which help them recover). Supporting local business has been proven again and again in both development and disasters to be of critical help.

Note, she also makes the point that we can’t give up the third-party directed aid. Families won’t buy the equipment to make vaccines or HIV blood tests; we will always need to encourage public infrastructure. But, we should not neglect the human. He and she are the most able to decide what he and she need.