I’ve been thinking a lot about how information gets distributed in emergency situations. In the United States we have the Emergency Alert System, which you’ve probably seen on TV:
The thing is, the EAS is centered around TV and radio broadcasts. In the age of DVRs, Netflix, iPods, etc, how does emergency information reach people when we are increasingly not consuming live TV and radio? Online distribution isn’t currently effective either, because it requires the user to actively seek out alerts. Even more importantly, what about people living in poorer countries with limited access to technology?
Initially, I thought the solution was to create a system to push emergency alerts to people while they are online…but I was wrong. The key to this entire puzzle is mobile phones. Mobile phones have incredible global penetration. More than any other consumer device. There are now more than 5 billion active mobile phones in the world. Remember, there are less than 7 billion people in the world. Even Third World countries have massive adoption.
We need a system to push emergency alerts directly to mobile phones based on their location without the need for the person to opt-in.
The first idea I posted, Oregato, was a fairly small idea. Meaning, even at scale, it could be executed by a relatively small team and will never be an IPO type company. This idea is much, much bigger.
There aren’t many startups that have the potential to be a billion+ dollar company, help hundreds of millions (maybe billions) of people, and save countless lives. If you want to change the world, you have to think big.
This is Allertia
First off, what types of alerts are we talking about?
These are highly critical alerts sent out by government officials and organizations. They are often a matter of life and death, and time is of the essence. For example:
- Weather Alerts (e.g. tornados, hurricanes, floods)
- Evacuation Alerts (e.g. fires, tsunamis, volcanos)
- Security Alerts (e.g. terrorist attacks, AMBER Alerts/kidnappings)
Allertia* will send emergency information via text messages and pre-recorded audio messages to mobile phones.
- SMS text messages are great because they require very little bandwidth and nearly every cell phone is SMS capable
- Audio messages are important in the interest of accessibility
To understand why the timing is right for Allertia, you need to get a sense of the emergency alert technology. I’ll try to keep it brief and provide links to more info. So basically:
- The current system (like in the video above with all the buzzes and beeps) uses the Specific Area Message Encoding Protocol (SAME)
- SAME was developed in the 1980’s and is currently used in the USA and Canada.
- In the late 2000’s a new standard was proposed and internationally adopted called the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP)
- The goal of CAP is to modernize the messaging system and allow easy distribution across a variety of platforms
- CAP is backwards compatible with SAME and is XML based
- CAP has a robust set of abilities including:
- Flexible geographic targeting using latitude/longitude
- Multilingual and multi-audience messaging
- Phased and delayed effective times and expirations
- Enhanced message update and cancellation features
- Template support for framing complete and effective warning messages
- Digital encryption and signature capability
- Facility for digital images, audio, and video
The Iron Is Heating Up, The Time Is Now
- FEMA has begun working on the next-generation warning system for the USA using CAP called Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)
- One piece of IPAWS is the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS)
- CMAS is a system to disseminate emergency alerts through mobile carriers to citizens via text messages
- CMAS was just released to US mobile carriers on Dec. 7, 2009. Carriers now have a 28 month window to get it integrated with their systems
- T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have all expressed their willingness to participate
- Australia has also begun testing their own system called Mobile Emergency Alert
- A handful of other countries are at the beginning stages of development
So the problem is solved then?
Well, no. The wheels are in motion in a few countries, but it’s taking a lot of time for countries to get up and running. (The US is hoping to be able to launch IPAWs in 2012). Only a handful of countries have even begun to undertake the task of modernizing their alert systems. At this rate, the problem is going to persist in many countries for the foreseeable future.
There is a huge opportunity to work with the other 180+ countries to bring their emergency systems up to date, integrate with outside organizations, and deliver their alerts to mobile devices. Here’s an overview of the products & services Allertia will provide:
- Allertia for Government Agencies
- Tools that integrate with legacy government systems and get them up to date with the CAP protocol
- A feature-rich management console that takes advantage of CAP to enable government officials to create and manage alerts. Key features being:
- Phased and delayed effective times and expirations
- Encryption and two-factor authentication
- Support for images, audio, and video
- Allertia for Mobile Carriers
- Integrate the incoming CAP feed into the carriers communication systems
- Integrate into the network load balancing and monitoring tools
- Enable the broadcasting of messages to devices connected to geotargeted cell towers (explained further below)
Broadcasting Messages From Geotargeted Cell Towers
Alerts need to be based on where you are now. That means, even if you are traveling, you need to automatically receive alerts relevant to your current location. This is not the way that some current systems integrate location. In the Reverse 911 program, for example, phone numbers are targeted based on where they were registered. This is not an ideal solution for mobile alerts.
Luckily, we can build the system to sufficiently identify location based on which cell towers a phone is connected to. Basically cell phones work by checking into cell towers and saying “I’m here”. Then when a call/message/data comes in, it can quickly route it through the network and to the correct device.
When an alert message comes in, the carrier will push the message out to all devices connected to the cell tower.
The model is to create a set of tools that can be reused across multiple instances. Each country will, however, require a substantial amount of custom build, localization, and ongoing maintenance. Allertia’s toolset will streamline integrations and provide a cost savings to governments and mobile carriers. Even though contracts will be multi-million dollars each, it’s a small amount compared to the government budgets for their emergency programs. For example, the United States allocated $106 million to the CMAS program to integrate mobile alerts.
So, what do you think? Allertia would require substantial resources but could yield big returns and be a benefit to the entire world. Up for the challege?
* What does “Allertia” mean? Allertia is a combination of the words ‘All’, ‘Alert’, and ‘Inertia':
- All: All people, all around the world.
- Alert: Emergency alerts, that’s what it’s all about
- Inertia: Objects at rest, tend to stay at rest. The world doesn’t change on it’s own, we need to take action and initiate change.