by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

“Google Public Alerts” and Its Features Out of the Box

I originally posted this article on AWAREForum.org on February 29, 2012.

You may recall that on January 25, 2012, the Google Crisis Response (GCR) team at Google.org launched the Google Public Alerts (GPA) platform.  GPA aggregates weather, public safety, and earthquake alerts from US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Weather Service (NWS), and the US Geological Survey (USGS) and displays the alerts on Google Maps Figure 1.

Image of Dense Fog Advisory in Central Oklahoma
Figure 1: Pop-ups give critical information about an alert. More details can be found by clicking the headline.

The GCR team does not use the word “Public” capriciously.  It is clear they gave considerable thought to how the public will find, read, and respond to alerts.  Alerts include critical information drawn from Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) messages published by the above agencies such as the headline, area (location), urgency, severity, certainty, as well as other details.

The GCR team’s clean design also includes additional information to help users understand what they are reading and how to respond.  They have included links back to the alerting authority, links to Ready.gov for recommended actions, and authoritative definitions of terms such as “Winter Storm Warning.”  Users have a few options for tailoring how they view alerts.  Users can search using keywords such as a location, zip code, or event type (earthquake, tornado) and they can sort/filter the alerts based on geo-location, date, and relevance.

Google.org has accomplished much by taking this first big step in aggregating alerts.  They have met several key requirements but are just getting started.  As the GCR team makes continual improvements, we have an opportunity to learn from their good work.  Below I suggest five enhancements that I hope the GCR team will consider when improving GPA.

Benefits of Google Public Alerts

Clearly, GPA meets a need for providing a central location for finding critical alerts.  Note, my team at Touchstone and I recommended a very similar solution to a Federal agency that provides alerts to the public in June of 2011.  We stressed that the public needs one location to authenticate alerts, find more information about an alert, check the status of an ongoing crisis, and share the alert with their social networks.  GPA does a nice job meeting those needs.

By aggregating alerts from NOAA, NWS, and USGS, Google helps these agencies disseminate their alerts to a broader audience.  As such, GPA helps shift the agencies’ role in the alert dissemination process:  agencies merely initiate and authenticate alerts where GPA, or any alert aggregator, now bears the burden of disseminating the alert more broadly.  In a sense, by freeing the data, the alerting agencies have freed themselves from having to support every dissemination channel.

The GCR team is first to admit they are just in the beginning stages of developing GPA.  However, they have put mechanisms in place for refining GPA further.  They include “Feedback” links on all of the alerts to enable the public to suggest improvements to the site – although for some reason GPA does not always allow me to sign in, which is frustrating.  The GCR team has also included instructions for local emergency managers to join GPA and share their own alerts.

Gaps in Google Public Alerts

While using GPA, I noticed several inconsistencies between it and Google maps.  The other day, the top alert on GPA warned of a flood in Galveston, Texas.  However, when I did searches for Galveston addresses on Google Maps the alert never appeared.  I had assumed that Google had not yet integrated GPA with Maps.  Yet when I searched for Fergus, MT, where there was a High Wind Warning, that alert appeared.  Hmmm.

I also was disappointed that I could not subscribe to alerts related to a certain location or zip code.  I would like to receive alerts on my RSS reader related to the address of my home, office, and mother’s house.  Additionally, I wish GPA would include local alerts that are relevant to my location such as major road closings.

Alas, GPA is not yet perfect and Google does not claim that it is.  My recommendation, therefore, is to consider GPA as a pilot for aggregating and disseminating alerts as effectively as possible.

Evaluating Google Public Alerts as a Pilot

Any organization that wishes to disseminate aggregated alerts can watch Google as they develop GPA further and learn what works and what doesn’t.  I can imagine several scenarios where a government agency or a private organization incorporates alert feeds and adds value to their own service offerings.  Perhaps the SBA will include earthquake and severe weather information on their website for the locations where they are offering disaster assistance.  Or, perhaps OnStar will use this information to notify subscribers in an affected location.

Because the GCR team is soliciting feedback we should anticipate that they will iteratively improve GPA.  We should make note of any new improvements and reverse engineer them to determine what new requirements they meet.  If an RSS button appears on the search results page for my zip code, then I’ll know that I am not the only one looking to subscribe to particular locations.

Not surprisingly the GCR team has not published its requirements for developing GPA.  Nevertheless, to learn from this pilot we should specify what our own requirements are for aggregating alerts and determine how well GPA meets them.  If I were to aggregate alerts I would want to know how well GPA meets several important requirements:

  1. How accurate and timely are the alerts?  If not, where are the bottlenecks?
  2. How relevant are the alerts based on certain geo-location criteria?  If not, are there issues with the feeds?
  3. As new alert feeds are added to GPA, how does it handle duplicative alerts from different agencies?
  4. What if a feed fails?  Does GPA report that a feed is down and provide alternate sources for alert information?

Understanding how well GPA manages these foundational requirements will help other organizations determine how well the alert feeds will work for them.

Five Enhancements to Google Public Alerts

I have high hopes for GPA and have great faith in the GCR team to continually make improvements.  Here are five enhancements, in addition to the RSS feeds, that I would like to see:

  1. Incorporate IPAWS alerts from FEMA.  This may cause an issue with duplicate alerts from NWS.   However, the GCR team may be able to get direct access to a feed containing amber alerts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  The GCR team would then only need the Presidential alerts from FEMA.
  2. Incorporate Outbreak Alerts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The CDC publishes alerts regarding infectious disease outbreaks.  Thankfully, there are only a handful of notices a day that the GCR team could easily incorporate into GPA, such as:
    • Infectious disease outbreaks currently being reported on by CDC.
    • Listings include those outbreaks for which content is currently published on the CDC website.
    • U.S.-Based Outbreaks
    • Recent investigations reported on CDC.gov
      • E. coli O26 – Raw Clover Sprouts at Jimmy John’s Restaurants
      • First announced February 2012
      • Restaurant Chain A – Salmonella Enteritidis
      • First announced January 2012
      • Ground Beef – Salmonella Typhimurium
      • First Announced December 2011
      • Romain Lettuce – Escherichia coli O157:H7
      • First announced December 2011
  3. Incorporate Important Local Traffic Alerts Relevant to My Location.  Google.com already tracks traffic severity on its maps.  Combined with major traffic incidence alerts, such as road or bridge closures, this information will be invaluable when the public is reacting to a weather or geological event.
  4. Provide more personalization.  As I mentioned above, I am first concerned with particular locations when I am looking for alerts.  I would like the capability to see alerts for particular locations first, then expand my view to include other parts of the country.  If the GCR team adds other alert feeds, then I would also want preferences for which alerts I see first.  Nevertheless, I recognize that this requires giving a lot of personal information to Google that not everyone is comfortable with.
  5. Integrate GPA with all Google products.  I imagine that this is pretty high up on Google’s roadmap.  If I am signed-in to Google I would like alerts that I have specified in my preferences (#4 above) to appear if I am using any Google product such as Search, GMail, YouTube, or Google Apps.  If I am not signed-in, I would like alerts to appear any time I indicate a location when I do a search using a Google product.

A hardy congratulations to Google.org for taking this first big step in aggregating alerts.  But this is only the beginning.  The aggregation of alerts for public consumption and personalization has far-reaching possibilities.  What can we do to build up on this?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s