Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Smart Phones and Crisis Mapping

Crisis Map of Haiti
Crisis Map of Haiti, 2010, via the OpenStreetMap project
I’d like to use this post to mention a new concept for wilderness medicine that was introduced to me at the Wilderness Medical Society annual meeting this past summer in Snowmass by Satchit Balsari. Dr. Balsari is from the Global Emergency Medicine Program at the Weill Cornell Medical College Division of Emergency Medicine. He is an extraordinarily intelligent and dedicated person, who obtained firsthand experience with smart phones and crisis mapping during his experience responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Crisis mapping technology has implications for people who engage in activities in the outdoors—hence, the relevance.

Dr. Satchit drew examples from Haiti soon after the earthquake to highlight the functionality in a situation of “obliterated” telecommunications. In the aftermath of the earthquake, as soon as cellular phones became functional, people were able to use them to define their locations, communicate, and call (or text) for help. The analogies to what might be useful in any austere (e.g., wilderness or outdoor) environment become apparent.

By calling a designated short code (telephone number), some people could text message their location (or be geo-located), as well as communicate their situation and needs. When people ask me what equipment they should pack in their emergency supplies, I always remind them to carry a fully-charged cell phone, and a method to keep it charged. In addition to the ability to help the caller, maps of clusters of calls and situations can be created, to guide a response during a multi-casualty incident. Obviously, one needs a working telephone or a working internet connection.

There are programs currently operating (and others in development) that can extract certain language from any message that appears on the internet. So, scouring social networks for language indicative of a specific situation (e.g., needing help, trapped, injured, etc.) might be possible, if not to help a specific individual, then to report a trend. If there are thousands of messages and tweets about persons trapped in an ice storm, or even a dozen from observers of a landslide or other accident, if the system is designed to capture these, it might be possible to trigger earlier responses and rescues.

To make this most effective, the transmitting device would have built-in automatic GPS capabilities, to identify the location of the sender. If people feel that this is an invasion of their privacy, perhaps it can come with an “opt out” feature.  A robust disaster response system might include a simple way to indicate a person’s condition—such as “I’m OK,” “I’m injured,” or “I’m trapped.” In such a situation, the honor system is necessary. However, in my experience, most people are very honorable in crisis situations such as an earthquake.

Dr. Sachit pointed out that these systems are not perfect and that things might go wrong. Misinformation might be sent intentionally or unintentionally and trigger unnecessary responses, utilizing precious resources and perhaps endangering rescuers. For a system like this, there are solutions that need to be worked out. For “white noise” (which would be expected if the system were heavily accessed), there would need to be effective filters to allow transmission of important information; potentially false information would need to be validated or rejected; incomplete information might require an interaction with the sender to obtain feedback and more details; and critical information would need to trigger a response. There are currently ways to do some of this, such as a platform of web applications named Swift Web Services (SWS) from SwiftRiver. I look forward to learn more about creating crowd sourcing platforms for crisis mapping, particularly as it applies to situations that occur in outdoor (wilderness) settings.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.