Mobile and the Space Between Public and Private Alerts

Last week RallyEngine was pleased to attend the first annual National Public Alerting Summit in Edmonton.

Organized by CATAAlliance, nearly 100 Canadian and International thought leaders converged to discuss the latest developments in emergency alerting. Collaboration and the sharing of best practices are of course vital to achieving success in such a critical and often complex field.

Pelmorex outlined its progress in establishing NAADS (the National Alert Aggregation and Disemmination System – soon to be publicly branded as Alert Ready), AEMA showcased its leadership amongst Canadian provinces in the alerts realm, and CRTC Vice-Chairman Peter Menzies urged key players to move faster at connecting the dots nationally (not a good sign if things are too slow even for the CRTC). However, it was a couple presentations from international guests that really impressed the room.

Mobile was a prominent conversation topic and, as might be expected in that sector, best practices are often still found outside of North America.

Morten Gustavsen of Unified Messaging Systems in Norway very clearly outlined the pros and cons of the two most common mass public alerting options for mobile: Advanced-SMS (location based text messaging) and Cell Broadcast. The former is better for accuracy and the latter is better for urgency (eg. earthquakes and tornadoes). Gustavsen advocated for the use of both – budget and process permitting, of course.

And Michael Hallowes, the National Director of the Emergency Alert program in Australia, shared with us learning’s from Oz’s 5-year journey delivering a fully integrated address-based and location-based national telephony warning system. A very thoughtful and comprehensive approach in general but especially so in that it separated out cellphone apps, social media, and websites because they do not serve their First Guiding Principle for the system: to be “non-discriminatory, accessible to, and reaches the vast majority of the community with access to a fixed line or wireless device”.

RallyEngine is an app-based communication and alert system, and yet we fully agree with Hallowes’s view that apps are not ideal for mass public alerting.

We believe that mobile demands a different approach in two very essential ways:

  1. Mobile devices are orders of magnitude more personal than other traditional communications channels. Smartphones may be ubiquitous but they are not a broadcast medium. Older leaders often miss this key aspect, lumping it in with TV, radio, and the like. Governments and organizations who use mobile for mass alerts should do so only for the very, very highest level of general safety alerts. Frequent, intrusive and broadly non-targeted cellphone takeovers (and there are many varieties and levels of alerts – who’s to judge what’s what) will generate severe backlash amongst the public and even widespread rejection of the system, defeating it’s purpose.
  2. The corollary is that because mobile devices are so personal to most people, they are ideal conduits for delivering messages and alerts – in particular for distinct, closed and/or private groups of people. Mobile, and specifically well-featured app-based mobile (like RallyEngine), is excellent for reaching distinct non-mass groups with targetable individual profiles; in other words, to everyone but the last mile. The aggregate of many reachable groups (and their targetable sub-groups) is impressive not just in its sum scale but more importantly in its relevance.

When it comes to mobile and alerts, it’s important to be mindful of the space – and opportunity – along the spectrum between private (individual and group) and public (mass) systems.

Also worth noting: There were a lot of very smart people in the room at the NPAS but there was one thing clearly missing: diversity. Delegates were mostly middle-aged or older men from either emergency/disaster or policy backgrounds. Which isn’t surprising, but the “public” part of public alerting includes a wide mix of “end-users” – seniors, teenagers, women, to name just a few – who all use technology and consume media quite differently. And some of the biggest challenges aren’t so much technical and political as they are UX (user experience) and marketing. The experiences and skills of the engineers, cops, bureaucrats, and even large vendors in attendance – as well-meaning as they are (except perhaps the large vendors) – would be nicely complemented by intermingling more professional communicators, designers, social media managers, and entrepreneurs.

Because if there’s one universal truth when it comes to public safety alerting, it’s that you gotta know what you don’t know.

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