Getting Social When Disaster Strikes

Last week’s bombing at Brussels airport provided me the opportunity to experience first hand what it is like to be part of the scene when an emergency situation occurs. In my last blog article I vented a lot about my experiences and how badly it seemed that Delta, in particular, had seemed prepared for what happened. Since then I have heard that Delta have admitted they were not prepared and to their credit they are taking it upon themselves to review what happened and what needs to change. In the days since I too have reflected on my experience and the things that might have been done different.

While on the plane I felt reasonably safe. There is little doubt that the combination of my phones and social media was allowing me to feel both informed and connected. After leaving the plane my world changed in many ways. I had important decisions to make in conjunction with those with whom I was traveling. I no longer felt either informed or connected. These feelings remained for the best part of six days as I tried to understand the ever changing environment in Brussels as well as my need to understand what was happening with my luggage. I did not feel in control of my situation and it was having an impact on the business purposes of my travel.

A lot has changed in recent years in the world of technology. Almost everyone around me at Brussels airport had cellphones. Many had tablets and other mobile devices at their disposal. Most had a capacity to tap into the Internet using wifi or cellular networks and yet it remained so difficult to find useful information about our situation.  As a former IBM Champion for IBM Collaboration Solutions I have advocated to my customers the way collaboration software can solve business problems. It is part of my job to stay abreast of changes in technology and identify opportunities. It should therefore come as no surprise I see social software as a solution for situations like this.

Imagine a scenario in which on arrival at the first hanger I could have pulled out a mobile device and instantly connected to a local wifi network brought up in response to the disaster. Imagine if instead of being asked to log in to the wifi service I instead received a home page for a persistent chat application and/or social community dedicated to the needs of those involved in the emergency. By identifying who I was and how I came to be there it would have been so much faster for Delta to identify my location and communicate important information to me. If I had medical issues I could make my needs known to emergency responders. Using the GPS in my device my exact location could be known. Using the camera on my device I could provide an updated photo to aid others to identify me, My camera could also allow me to share details of the scene around me. Information could be made available to me in real time and instantly translated into any language. I could watch media reports of the event to better understand my situation. Family could have an easier way to contact me and get updates on my status and location. I could scan boarding passes or baggage tags to help airlines to connect me to my belongings. I could connect with those around me to work together to resolve common needs such as food, accommodation, travel needs etc. Emergency responders would be better placed to identify those in need. Volunteers could match what they had to offer with those in need. And later when people started to move on, it would be possible to keep track of where they were heading and how many remained in the area to be helped. Public transport and accommodation details could be shared. Information that would be vital for people like myself to get back to a normal life as quickly as possible.

The technology to do all these things is available today. All that is needed is for somebody with deep enough pockets to fund its development.  Companies such as IBM and Microsoft all have the social platforms to facilitate this. Organizations such as Red Cross and The Salvation Army are also well placed to facilitate the establishment of the needed infrastructure including mobile wifi services and mobile device charging needed to ensure people could remain connected.

While solutions like this could help people to cope with all manner of emergencies they can particularly play an important role to reduce the impact of terrorists activities. This is a way we can fight back against those that want to disrupt our lives in any way possible. By allowing us to stay calm and collected in a crisis we take an important step in not letting them win.

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Peter Presnell

Father, husband, CEO – Red Pill Now. Dual citizen (Australia/USA) living in Atlanta, GA. Grew up in NW Tasmania, studied/worked in Melbourne becoming an avid Saints fan before moving to USA in 2000. Outside of my family my passion is connecting technology to innovative new solutions for business problems. Former IBM Champion for Social Collaboration, regular presenter and occasional blogger. #nevertrump.

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