This last week I posted a summary of a visit to Towson University on my NoJitter blog about how the university has deployed a WebRTC mobile application from SaferMobility to their students and faculty. It’s an intriguing story that mixes the latest in WebRTC technology, location services, and public safety. Interestingly, the article captured the interest of a number of people, posting their concerns about whether a mobile application is the “right way” to address public safety needs. Maybe some further thoughts and clarification are needed.
One issue that was brought up by the readers relates to jurisdiction and response coordination. Is it better for students to contact the university public safety office on the mobile app first? Or, should they dial 9-1-1 first? This is an interesting question that really depends on the situation at hand. If a student/staff observes someone breaking into a car or other petty crime, the university public safety personnel are a lot closer and able to use the on-campus security cameras to record the incident and respond fast enough to capture the assailant. On the other hand, if the incident is a major fire or significant crime, the university staff will likely need to engage and/or coordinate regional off-campus resources (fire, police, etc). Are students and staff likely to make these decisions correctly? It seems that the trend is to assume not, and that an on-campus public safety coordinator would be the first point of contact, allowing them to coordinate the emergency response needs.
The reliability of mobile apps and the communications infrastructure also came into question by a number of readers. Will the application work when the user needs it? Let’s just start with the usual mobile device weaknesses – does a witness’ mobile device have enough battery life, a cell tower connection and/or a clear view of the sky to lock on the GPS satellites to get a good location? We somehow live through all these issues on a daily basis and as Sorell Slaymaker noted in his comments “The U.S. mobile service providers report that 90% of enterprise 911 calls are from mobile phones”.
The reliability of apps on mobile devices didn’t seem to slow down a number of application developers – last year, the Department of Homeland Security facilitated a Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Hackathon. During the event, a number of innovative applications were presented and won awards from various sponsors, many of them having moved from “ideas” to “products”. Even the Whitehouse is encouraging their development with a Safety Datapalooza event.
So what are we to make of all this? It’s clear from the wide deployment of mobile apps for public safety that there is a clear trend to enhance public safety using mobile apps. It seems to me that WebRTC is an ideal platform to build these applications with encryption, fidelity, voice and video along with data channel features. With the increasing concern over our security and the technology “in-hand”, this seems like an exciting market that is sure to continue to grow.
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