Big Tech saves lives – 911 calls need to change

If and when you are psychologically up to it, listen to some 911 calls. It is not just good indirect experience in case you are ever in a desperate situation but also heart warming to know that so many ordinary people can turn into super heroes when the need arises.

It is also absolutely infuriating.

As a person that always looks for the optimal solution to problems, I often find myself wanting to scream at either the caller or the operator. 911 (or 112 if you are in Europe, or other numbers in other countries) is an amazing feat of collaboration and government actually managing to do something useful which generally works well. The history of getting different carriers to maintain an emergency service is fascinating.

But it is far from enough.

In the recent pandemic we initially all discussed contact tracing. Apple and Google silently yet amazingly, produced a way to use our smart phones. They got little credit for it mainly because they are so afraid of the privacy backlash. But maybe emergency calls is a way for us all to reap the benefits of this work in the long term.

Have you ever dialed in an emergency? Here’s what happens. Regardless of whether or not you have paid your bill, or even if you are near a cell tower of the company you buy service from, your route gets patched through to a central service. (In the U.S. it is a bit more complicated due to different State laws and histories with telcos.) Your phone sends your location to the person picking up your call to save everyone time.

So why just location? Your phone battery levels might be useful for emergency services to know. But what would be really great would be access to your cameras. Oh, you are worried they might abuse it? Well listen to the lady that drowned in her car because 911 didn’t believe it was filling up with water. In fact why stop at your cameras, based on location in case of emergency, 911 should be able to ask bystanders’ smartphone cameras to switch on. You get an emergency notification and accept if you want. It would help in a lot of situations. All available data from smart phone sensors of the person calling 911 as well as people nearby could save a lot of lives and energy.

One of the biggest problems with 911 calls is pranksters. Again, there are tech solutions. Because if the call also send a log of recent activity, emergency services could much more quickly and reliably assess if you are serious or a ten year old playing a bad joke. It could be with your approval, a message on your phone saying “we need to access your internet history and app usage to make sure your emergency call is valid”. If my kid was in danger or my car is half fallen down a cliff I am pretty sure I won’t mind them seeing whatever else I did today to prove I am serious.

In the early days of the internet, I had suggested public use of banners on websites for announcements that are important to society. It would a kind of online ad tax to help find missing children or spread awareness for important topics which don’t get enough funding for communication. Maybe 911 calls can start something which brings back the concept of public dogoodery in a new way again.

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