Configurable Thoughts

 

Bringing Order to Chaos

Texas is experiencing one of the worst known droughts in its history this year. Drought brings fire, and the fires have certainly arrived. Wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,400 homes so far this year in Texas, and the fires continue to burn. “Some residents needed no urging to leave because they saw the flames lapping at the trees. Others heard from friends and neighbors, while still others found a sheriff’s deputy at their door or heard firemen rolling down the street with bullhorns. In most cases no one had to be told twice” according to CBSnews.com

In our age of microprocessors, hyper-connectivity and social media, is that what it still comes to: word of mouth and the sheriff at the door? “Information” is more than at our fingertips; it is often pushed to us whether we ask for it or not. Is there a better way to get people out of harm’s way? Sure there is, I suspect you have it next to you right now – your smart phone.

Proposals to push emergency information to phones are gaining traction in hurricane areas, such as Florida. The federal government has taken steps to establish such a system as well; the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, or WARN Act. The general idea here is that if a geographic area is in danger; a warning message can be pushed to all the cell phones in that area. Sounds great? A bit like Twitter on steroids? “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Back to those Texas fires …. One particularly interesting challenge that individuals and emergency management professionals faced recently while fighting the Texas fires occurred just outside of Austin – a fire burning completely out of control in an area with 4,000 homes, but only one road out.

In this case, and I suspect in nearly all emergency cases, we need something smarter than geography-based panic inducing SPAM. What happens when you simultaneously inform masses of people that they are in harm’s way? Chaos.

Can technology and science bring order to chaos? Sure. Here’s an example not so different (but instead of people rushing a single exit, they squeeze through a single entrance). Jason Steffen, a particle physicist at Fermliab, has used his expertise of complex systems and motion to develop an airplane boarding procedure that proves more efficient than those currently in use.

The hyper-connectivity that is resulting from the dramatic increases that we are realizing with microprocessor technology is giving us the tools we need (we know where you are, how many are in an area, and can get you information at the push of a button) to instantly notify people. The next step is to help them respond in a way that limits the chaos. Microprocessors and connectivity are again combining to help in the form of auto-to-auto networks. Not only will they make driving safer and easier, but they will be useful in situations like this in Texas in the future to maximize traffic flow through the bottleneck, and bring order to the chaos.