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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 February 2007, 19:00 GMT
Digital neighbourhood watch plan
New Orleans
A community response grid could have helped the Katrina relief effort
A neighbourhood watch for the digital age, utilising the power of social networking, has been proposed.

Two lecturers in the US have suggested creating a network of Community Response Grids (CRG) in conjunction with the emergency services.

Citizens could leave text, video and photos on the site of emergencies, natural disasters and terror attacks.

A pilot could start later this year based at the University of Maryland, driven by 40,000 students and staff.

The idea of a nationwide network of 911.gov websites has been proposed by Maryland university lecturers Ben Shneiderman and Jennifer Preece in this month's edition of Science magazine.

"The 911 telephone system functions effectively when there are traffic accidents, health emergencies or small fires, but when large numbers of people are involved it does not handle the capacity," said Professor Shneiderman.

He added: "The evolution of the internet and its maturity at this point and the great success of social networking sites like MySpace, Craig's List and Amber Alert, suggests there is an opportunity to do something for emergency response and recovery."

Community driven

The proposal is for community-driven websites to be run by trained volunteers working in conjunction with the 6,100 local 911 services around the US.

"Citizen reporters would report to a centralised authority who will take care of emergency response coordination and allocate scarce resources of police fire and medical services," said Professor Shneiderman.

The idea came after Prof Shneiderman typed 911 into his web browser to see if there were any official websites.

It gives neighbours and people in the community much more power in protecting and supporting each other
Jennifer Preece, University of Maryland

The two professors believe the growth of community-driven websites and the rise of user generated content, especially in the field of citizen journalism, would give the grids every chance of success.

"It gives neighbours and people in the community much more power in protecting and supporting each other," said Professor Preece.

Information from residents would be added to regular updates from hospitals, emergency crews, surveillance cameras and other sensors used for Homeland Security so that the site would be both a resource for information and a place to contribute material.

The two academics admitted there were many hurdles to overcome but said the grids could be set up within three to five years.

They have applied for funding from the National Science Foundation to pay for a pilot study on the campus.

They said the net was robust enough and reliable enough to be used as a conduit and source for information in major disasters.

'Legitimate concerns'

Prof Shneiderman said: "Any communications medium is vulnerable especially in certain kinds of devastation - either natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Those are legitimate concerns.

"The internet is designed for resilience and if this proposal goes forward it would certainly strengthen the need to have very reliable systems which are increasingly available."

Community Response Grid
Locals could leave details, text and photos, on the website

Encouraging the participation of existing local groups, such as volunteer firemen, libraries, sports groups etc, would keep the community alive even when there were no emergencies or disasters.

The CRGs would need to be robust enough to deal with traffic spikes during times of large-scale emergencies, said the professors.

"Peak service problems are substantial issues," said Prof Shneiderman.

"News sites have the same problem - when a big story breaks demand is 40 to 100 times greater than the normal load.

"The internet does very well when it comes to scaling up, certainly better than phones."


There were also issues around pranksters leaving false information which could have fatal consequences if acted upon by the emergency services.

"911 phone calls are subject to prank callers and we think web-based reporting would have that danger just as well," said Prof Shneiderman.

"You would have to pre-register, the system would not allow anonymous entries.

"You must get people engaged in advance, to try it and learn it and be part of it."

Prof Preece said the mobile phone would be an important tool for the CRGs.

"We are expecting to have cell phone access. Many people's lives are directed by their cell phones - their communications, their social lives, contact with families."

Prof Shneiderman said the French heatwave in 2003 in which thousands of people died was an example of where community-driven services could have helped.

"11,000 people died and that was really for the lack of people offering each other water, checking on their neighbours, and arranging for people to go to air conditioned facilities.

"There would be a need and demand for a service like this even if there were not a Hurricane Katrina or terrorist attacks - there are lots of occasions where community help on a resident by resident basis could be very beneficial."

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