Calling Net 911

In the aftermath of the 2004 South Asian tsunami, and nine months later, when Hurricane Katrina hit, mainstream media struggled with a communications infrastructure a shambles. Some of the most poignant descriptions of the devastation and most effective calls for help were posted online. Blogs and message boards carried news about the disaster, calls for the missing, pleas for help and offers of assistance.

Online information wasn't easy to get, of course. Even if you could hook up to the Internet, disorganized posts made it tough to find the right sources. That's where two University of Maryland professors come in. They're proposing a system that would combine the best aspects of MySpace, Craigslist and the U.S. Amber Alert. Named after the U.S. emergency phone number, their network would take pressure off busy emergency dispatchers and make crucial information available to anyone with a mobile device. How would that work? Say there's been a flood or fire. Should you evacuate? You call 911, and the line is busy; you turn on the radio, and get nothing but static. With, you could go online and see a map of your neighborhood, alerts from local authorities, firsthand details from neighbors and images of the damage. It would also allow you to connect with neighbors and report what's happening—maybe even organize a car pool out. "We want to take the Internet from an information tool to a survival tool," says computer-science professor Ben Shneiderman.

To keep things simple, would be compatible with SMS text messaging, which would allow people to connect reliably and easily in an emergency. "It's human nature for people to want to help out," says Andy Carvin, editor of the Digital Divide Network, a Web site, "and now more and more have these highly advanced tools for communicating online."

The challenges of building an international version of, particularly in places that don't have good emergency-phone networks, are vast, but many nations could make it work internally. And although the system would break down in big disasters that destroyed Internet and phone networks, it might serve well in, say, an epidemic or a biological attack. As Carvin points out, even in the aftermath of 9/11 and Katrina, text-messaging systems remained unhindered: "Sometimes the simplest technologies can be the most useful."