When a gunman entered Discovery Channel headquarters with a list of demands, our attention shifted from a strengthening Hurricane Earl to the safety of those people inside the building.
How many are still inside? Where are they? Are they safe?
While we may be better prepared for building-wide crises after 9/11 and tragedies like Virginia Tech, we have yet to answer the magic question of “who’s still inside and where?” Security cameras can’t capture who’s hiding in a private office or dorm room. But something else can, a revolutionary technology in development dubbed the Indoor Positioning System (IPS).
GPS can answer which building you’re in, but only IPS can identify which floor and office you’re in – and that’s a game changer for crisis response. There are a few flavors of IPS, each relying on measuring the strength of signals to triangulate your position.
Let me retry that explanation as a riddle:
Andy only gets 93.3FM on the second floor of his house, his WiFi signal is strongest on the northwest corner of his house, and digital TV doesn’t work in the basement. Andy is rocking out to 93.3FM with Family Guy on in the background and frustrated that the latest OpenGov documents are taking forever to download on his laptop. Where is Andy?
If you guessed on the southeast corner of the second floor of his house, you just got IPS. Admittedly a bit oversimplified (who keeps the radio on during Family Guy?), but imagine if your mobile phone, laptop, whatever could measure those same signals thousands of times per second to know exactly where you are. Pretty smart approach I think.
Rundown of two technologies vying for the IPS market:
1. Ultrasound – The person you wish to track wears an ultrasound-emitting device (like a wristband or badge) that is picked up by multiple sensors installed throughout the building. Pro: very accurate. Con: requires subject to wear a new device and for the building to install sensors. Where it’s great: hospitals. Sonitor Technologies is deploying this technology in hospitals to track when doctors enter patient rooms, creating a real-time log of who saw whom and when, not to mention where a doctor is at all times.
2. Radio Signal – Uses the strength and relative position of existing radio signals, such as WiFi/WLAN, DTV, FM, etc. to determine the person’s latitude/longitude/altitude. For example, where are you located relative to the hundreds of WiFi routers in an office building. Pro: No new hardware required. The radio signals are already out there, and mobile phones can pick them up. Con: Less accurate than ultrasound with a margin of error of 5-15 meters, but improving with new advances. Where it’s great: office buildings, schools, large public places like shopping malls.
I first learned of Radio Signal IPS while visiting a university near Bremen, Germany last November where a doctoral candidate could pinpoint the location of a toy train moving around the room using DTV signals. DTV is great because agencies like the FCC publish exactly where the towers are to help people get better reception, while at the same time creating a mechanism for IPS (FCC site pictured)
How could IPS be used for a building crisis?
Here’s my take. Soon we will have apps that when executed, the phone’s radio wave tuners interpret a multitude of signals (like WiFi and DTV) to better determine your exact location, then report that to first responders. Picture an app named “Trapped!” that sends your basic information and exact location (including floor and office number) to a secure database accessible by a team of responders on the ground in real-time. If you’re trapped by a fire or hiding from a dangerous situation, one touch of a button and help is on the way. You could even include how many people are with you, accounting for those who may not have the app.
If you’re wondering why there aren’t apps to do this now, the answer is largely because the level of signal processing needed to do IPS hasn’t been made available to developers. It lies too deep within the phone to access by conventional means. Heck, we’re still fighting a battle for enabling FM in phones for emergency purposes, which is sadly entwined with the same conversation as music royalties. Yes, you’re phone likely has a tuner but it was disabled for US sale in order to drive you to purchase music instead. Shrug.
Ideally, the location that a 911 center receives when you call would be the best the DEVICE can provide (not the carrier or dispatch system), but I believe were years away from 911 centers truly leveraging the location information that phones can provide to them. I’ve built the technology that can do it here in our humble GovLive crisis lab, but don’t have the patience for the long road of getting it adopted.
Hope I got your gears turning on how new technology could apply to another Discovery crisis. Until next week, government rock stars!
Website of the Week: History of the Fallout Shelter Sign
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About Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.
What does CB2 Mean? “Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog.” It was originally CB Squared but the superscript 2 never took, so now we’re rocking the big 2.