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Emergence of big data into critical communications networks 

It is widely agreed that access to social media sources has a positive impact on response quality and times. However, it has also been argued that social media can be a hindrance rather than a benefit for public safety users i.e. logging data as evidence, where do you store it?... What are your thoughts?  

Public safety bodies are much better now at using social media in the post-event environment (e.g. for investigation purposes) and as a tool for putting information out to the public. The next step is to exploit social media and big data in live time as a way of adding to the information and intelligence picture and in turn shaping the response. 

Whether social media is useful to emergency response very much depends on its content. There is no doubt that having access to live-time information from the scene of an incident would ensure better public safety response. Conventional social media networks are overloaded with irrelevant data in a public safety context; so what we need to be able to harness is “user generated critical content” – content which has been created by the public but is directly related to specific incidents or public safety events (e.g. witness photographs and videos). If we expand our definition of social media, we can think about content generated from smart mobiles, wearable technology or even smart homes. The future of critical communications is an exciting one.

With any influx of complex information, there will be challenges around filtering, analysing and storing the data. These challenges will only grow as data volume increases and content becomes richer. These aren’t just problems for public safety agencies though; they are challenges for the wider critical communications industry to solve. Command and Control systems need to become more “intelligent”, communications networks need to be able to handle a mix of voice and data in mobile, and often hostile, environments and control rooms need to be able to blend digital with more traditional mediums.

Which technology do you think is best placed to help control room personnel communicate only the most relevant and trustworthy information to the front line responder?

Carefully recruited and well trained control room staff will always be the key to ensuring effective decision making and communication within the critical control room environment. Technology, though, can mainly support in two ways.

Firstly, through the ability to filter, search and analyse vast amounts of rich data so that operators are presented with the right information at the right time. Drawing on User Generated Critical Content from an array of sources will create a repository of information too vast for manual searching. Time is very often a critical factor in emergency response, so technology needs to be able to speed up processes, search multiple databases and present structured and relevant information back to the operator to support critical decision making.

Secondly, technology needs to inter-connect the whole critical communications chain. Traditional control room communications relies on voice with one or several operators acting as intermediaries between the public and the front line. The next evolution needs to create an inter-connected communication web, with critical content being sent to multiple destinations (front line and control room simultaneously) direct from content-creators and needs to support multi-channel, multi-directional conversations.

I haven’t yet seen a single technology or application which can do it all, but there are some strong contenders with some pretty cool development plans. With developments in mobile broadband, new generations of command and control applications and ongoing discussions on the next generation of 999/911/112, we are moving in the right direction.  The future will certainly feature the Cloud, software-as-a-service and a host of new ways of working.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge when it comes to integrating big data into existing critical communication networks?

I’ve outlined the main challenges above, which is the ability to analyse big data in fast time. Alongside this however, the ability to move critical data around crowded networks will also become challenging. There is already a large demand on both fibre and wireless networks. Network users now demand constant high speeds and we have an expectation that everywhere we is “connected”. This week’s announcement of the first “smart pavement” in Buckinghamshire, UK, is testament to the way cities will change to support our need for connectivity. However, we now use over double the data service on mobile phones we did five years ago; add to this the growing number of other connected devices (the internet of things) and it becomes a crowded tech highway. Even with a substantial investment in a fibre-wireless network, resource will have a finite limit. Future networks need to be attentive to the demand for bandwidth placed upon them and provide sufficient resources to meet the demand at the time. The Institute of Engineering and Technology describes this problem well and offers a solution with “Demand-Attentive Networks” achieved through a combination of technical standards, network architecture and smart regulation which work together to organise the demand for bandwidth in real time.  

As we move to the mobile broad band environment what does mission critical communications look like?

Mobile broadband will enable critical communications to become more dispersed with the ability to send rich data across multiple destinations: to resources in the field, to forward command posts, to on-call specialists responding from home. This fundamentally changes the way we think about how we work and interact with each other, and what a workplace represents. In turn there are likely to be financial savings in the areas of estates and travel, changes to how we train and reward staff and a different dynamic with the public. The way we currently visualise control rooms will change and their role will continue to develop away from pure communications (as the technology will be the enabling element, rather than an operator) towards being a super-information hub. 

What is the most relevant and trustworthy source of information from the public and what role does a control room play in this process? 

No single source of information is 100% accurate. But it doesn’t need to be. The skill of commanding public safety incidents and events is to be able to synthesis information from a wide variety of sources to create a dynamic picture of what is happening. Sources vary for many reasons, including the fact that people perceive events differently depending on where they fit into an event and others just want to post deliberate misinformation. In this regard information from social media networks are no more or less reliable than information from someone making a voice call to the public safety agencies. There are two important differences though. Firstly, it is easier to ask probing questions when an informant is on the phone. Good questioning not only draws out more information but can also assist in assessing truthfulness and reliability. Whilst it can be (and is) done, two way conversations on social media networks are slow and laborious. Secondly, social media networks offer almost instant access to large numbers of unrelated sources. For example, the same event might be posted to a social network by multiple people whose only connection is having witnessed the same event at the same time. Anecdotally it seems we might be starting to see a trend of Tweet first, make an emergency call second. With the right technology, social media information allows for agencies to start responding before a traditional emergency phone call is received. 

However you access the information, currently the main source is the public. Our challenge is develop public safety communications channels at the same rate as the public change their communication preferences. Leaping into the future however, I can see a world where the main source of initial public safety information is the technology of the smart world we will be living in.

Chris Dreyfus is a government expert at PA Consulting Group 





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