Would you write a 911 location app?

John Oliver talked in his show’s most recent episode about the US emergency services phone number, 911. It seems that now nobody uses land lines anymore, sometimes the emergency services have a hard time locating people from their cell phones.

John Oliver: “And if you’re thinking, ‘wait a minute, I can find my location on my cell phone,’ you’re not alone. Dispatchers wonder the same thing.”

Dispatcher: “I can check in on Facebook and it’ll tell you exactly what building I’m in. […] But when you call 911 we don’t get that accurate location information. The technology’s out there, it’s just not getting to us at this point.”

JO: “That’s a good point, because even the Domino’s app can tell where you are, and they’ve barely mastered the technology to make a palatable pizza! So we asked […] why it seems Ubers can find you better than ambulances can, and there doesn’t seem to be a simple satisfying answer.”

Here is my best guess at that answer, as a software engineer. Our industry has a pervasive culture of rush-jobs that get 90% of the way there and then save the rest for version 2; move fast and break things, yada yada. No emergency services provider would adopt it because it would not be reliable.

It’s reasonable to think that 90% would be better than what 911 apparently has now, which according to the video is sometimes only accurate to the nearest cell tower. However, the litigious nature of US society makes that impossible. The first time the software failed, the maker would get sued out of business.

Thus we are stuck, because we teach ourselves not to go the extra mile; and even if we went it, no-one could afford to take responsibility for making things better.

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4 thoughts on “Would you write a 911 location app?

  1. There’s also a question of distribution, of course. People have an Uber app or Dominos app on their phone, because they signed up to Uber or Dominos… it’s an opt-in process, where people have the software because they deliberately chose to get service from a particular provider.

    For emergency services, that’s not really the case – even if they probably should, most people won’t install a “Call 911” app on the chance that they’ll need it in future.

  2. But there is already system for this purpose, E911: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_9-1-1
    It is mandatory in all cell phones sold since 2005. It was introduced with official explanation that emergency dispatchers will be able to locate phone themselves. So now it looks like we can be traced without our knowledge (see talks of Harald Welte from CCC), but still cannot get help when we need it.

    • I did have an enlightening discussion about E911 with some friends on Facebook after I originally posted it. On the one hand it seems that if phones / providers implement E911 properly, then the accuracy should be much better than what is shown in the video. On the other hand, given the clips from various news organizations, it seems that E911 isn’t implemented properly everywhere.

      One friend pointed out that maybe the news organizations didn’t distinguish between “nearest cell tower” and “triangulation between cell towers” which E911 is supposed to do.

      • The problem here is triangulation still isn’t as accurate as GPS, it can be off by hundreds of meters, and that’s assuming your cell is being picked up by 3 towers. If it’s only getting picked up by 1 or 2 accuracy goes down. E911 was designed back before most cell phone had a GPS. So they couldn’t use GPS to determine location (which of course is how all those apps on your phone are getting your location). They probably need some sort of fall back system in place, a way to have the phone transmit the GPS coordinates over a data channel to the call centre, with fall back on triangulation etc for people who have phones without GPS or maybe have no data connectivity. Of course many of the issues mentioned in the video are still valid, coming up with a new standard for this to work, upgrading cell phones to support it, upgrading cell towers to support it, rolling out the back end systems in call centres etc takes a lot of time and money. When you mix government bureaucracy in there, as well as government agencies that don’t seem to care or are going to divert funds, then it just slows everything down more.

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