There was a story in this morning’s New Zealand Herald saying that Coroner Ian Smith recommended the Government considers legislation compelling telcos to give GPS coordinates of people as as soon as they’re requested by emergency services.
It also quoted Communications and Information Technology Minister Amy Adams saying “that the Government had asked officials late last year to investigate the magnitude of the caller location issue after a review of the 111 service.”
It seems that we are way behind other parts of the world in this, but there is also perhaps a lack of understanding as to what a telco can do without spending a lot of money.
First, the GPS in a Smartphone is not typically accessible without a native application, i.e. one that is designed for the operating system of the mobile. The answer to that would be for the Government to fund the development of an emergency application that could be run from a mobile. This would enable people to run the application in an emergency, ensure a channel to the emergency service required and automatically send the location to the call centre and allow it to continue tracking that location until the emergency is over.
The problem with cell tower triangulation is that in a country like New Zealand where the cell towers are often quite a distance from each other, is that it is not particularly accurate. In the instance quoted in the NZ Herald story there was only one cellphone tower nearby, so they wouldn’t have even known in which direction the person who made the call was in relation to the tower. If he didn’t have a smartphone then even my suggestion wouldn’t work.
In urban areas cellphone triangulation can be pretty good, but nothing like the 10 meters that GPS can provide on a good day.
What surprises me more is that the NZ Government seems to be so far behind on this, given that we are early mass adopters of smartphone technology and many of us in the telecommunications industry have been discussing this for years. The story that came from the major telcos in New Zealand was pretty much that they have capability in the networks to locate people, but enabling it is expensive and they didn’t see an ROI, in other words who will pay for it? The thing is we have moved on since then and the mobile typically knows where it is better than the telco, its just a matter of coming up with a national strategy and a budget.
The timing of this story actually coincides with this week’s NENA (National Emergency Number Association) Conference in Charlotte this week where apps developed in conjunction with the NSF will be demonstrated that would allow not only voice, but also video and location to be sent from a phone placing a 911 call.
The European Commission has just adopted two proposals which still have to be approved, mandating that all new cars have an eCall system by October 2015 which automatically calls emergency services in the case of a serious crash. The proposed system overcomes concerns about privacy because it is only activated from the vehicle in the event of an emergency, which is obviously in a lot of people’s minds given recent ‘revelations’ about PRISM.
eCall isn’t a new concept, it has been around for years and has been shelved several times, because someone has to fund it. This video came out in 2007, expecting it to be adopted in 2010, with good justification!
Given the state of their economy, this could be stalled again, although a key point of difference today is that the major European and America car manufacturers re installing LTE systems or other communications systems into new cars now, which means that a lot of the in-car cost becomes less of an issue, although an app is still required.
The problem in New Zealand is that we have such a high propensity to buy used Japanese cars that were not made for the local market that it could take 10 years before a large percentage of cars in New Zealand had that technology. Of course most emergencies don’t happen in cars, they can happen anywhere, which brings me back to the mobile.
If the majority of mobiles sold today have GPS in them and most people replace their mobile roughly every 18 months, then if an emergency app was developed under Government funding, we could have a majority of people accessing it very quickly. It wouldn’t be difficult to draft the specification and wouldn’t take long to develop.
For the telcos and for the mobile phone developers this would also provide a boost in business with people being encouraged to upgrade to a mobile capable of running the app. For emergency services it would enable them to respond more quickly and not have people in the field wasting time looking for people, they will know where they are. They will know a lot more about the situation when they get there as well.
This isn’t rocket science, I have a pile of location based apps that I use every day on my iPhone which are accurate and reliable. Companies like Imersia have the ability to put together a solution very quickly that would support communications from both mobiles and cars, with a variety of technologies (each manufacturer is still trying to have proprietary systems). As the coroners point out, lives would be saved.
Election year is coming, perhaps one of the parties might like to consider adding this to their campaigns. Have you ever listened to emergency calls on TV programs and seen how hard it is sometimes for people in a stressful situation to share their location? Have you ever been in one of those situations yourself?