Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

Scenario: Large scale industrial accident

Right now I am living in Ludwigshafen, Germany. I think this is a reasonably safe place to live and there isn't anything obviously live-threatening going on.

The only thing I can think of right now would be large scale industrial accidents. There is a nuclear power plant in 30km distance (in Biblis) and the city hosts BASF, the worlds largest chemical company.

As I just found out from wikipedia, there even was a big accident at BASF, however in 1920.

"The economic recovery during the 1920s was thrown back by the worst explosion ever in a German industrial complex when, in 1921, a BASF factory blew up, killing more than 500, injuring a further 2000 and destroying countless buildings."

So now imagine a scenario where something really bad happens at BASF and some substance gets into the ecosystem (e.g. water supply, air) that will potentially cause severe harm to people when directly exposed. However you can protect yourself using for example some kind of air mask or water filter.

As people could be exposed VERY fast and the area has a high population density (419 per km²). Action needed to be taken swiftly. Local and national authorities would have to provide the means of helping people, providing the right equipment. However, this will still take quite a while (as the accident will likely be surprising).

The most urgent need would be for information on what to do until help arrives. Things like staying in the house or not drinking water from the tap. Another important thing to take care of a scared or needy people that can't help themselves or are in dangerous situations.

So we would need to things:
1) A way of broadcasting information to everyone.
2) A means of people calling for help in fashion that SCALES to millions of queries.

As for 1) existing measures would probably already give a great coverage. Almost everyone is exposed to radio or television an there are a lot of people around you that will make you aware of the situation. There would probably also be cars with loudspeakers and sirens, so I have no fear of not going to be aware of the situation.
Of course there might be some people in remote places that could be more easily reached via SMS. But I really think Ushahidi wouldn't be too useful here.

On the other hand Ushahidi could be extremely useful to ease the pain problem 2). Some people might find themselves in need of help and writing an SMS is possible for almost everyone. By giving a message and providing location data (which is already quite accurate via mobile access points).

For the system to work out, Ushahidi would need to be
  • Set up extremely fast (< 1h)
  • Handle a massive scale (probably could hosted, but more importantly correct information processing to surface the important stuff in the ocean of information)
Thats just my crazy ideas here, I am not thinking that this scenario is very likely. But its hard to think of disasters when you've never experienced one.

I would also argue that a system like Ushahidi could be easily implemented on top of existing commercial applications like Twitter or applications around the new buzzword "location aware services". The upside would be that they are designed to handle large scale traffic whereas small ad-hoc solutions are usually not. There are already uses of this (google for "twitter earthquake").

Its however feels much more comforting to trust your life to an open source software developed and tested in crisis situations than to hope for a commercial company to act in the interest of mankind. I also think that real crisis regions with a less developed infrastructure can profit a lot more, as there is not a lot of means of communication to choose from.

Views: 54

Comment by Jean Frankly on May 4, 2010 at 1:27am
Good point. Industrial disasters like the Gulf Coast oil spill remind us of how fragile our world is, and how tools like Ushahidi are needed.


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