Government info sites don’t work

There’s a relatively new site called “www.ready.gov” that the Department of Homeland Security has set up to keep the American people informed on what they do and how the people should prepare themselves for terrorist onslaughts, natural disasters and war and stuff. As with most such government initiatives, I see a lot of problems. First and foremost that they don’t really try to inform people in a useful way, they try to pacify people to keep them from becoming upset. In other words, they do their best to keep people un-informed.

Why is this so? I think it is because governments feel that the worst thing that can happen is if people panic and start doing hasty things, causing all kinds of problems. There is this attitude that nothing is worse than such a panic. If you stay calm, half the problem is solved. Actually, there isn’t much data to support such a statement.

How many dangerous mass panics can you think about? The only one I can remember off the cuff is the one Orson Welles caused with his radio play “War of the Worlds” back in 1938. As far as I know, nobody was killed in this panic, even though two million people took to the roads to flee the invading martians. A recent little panic in Siberia was also, weirdly enough, caused by the movie “War of the Worlds” in combination with a thunderstorm, but again, no victims are mentioned. It’s hard to find other examples of destructive mass panics, so government’s preoccupation with the phenomenon seems grossly misplaced.

The government line in informing the public is nicely demonstrated on the www.ready.gov site. If you go through the pages on biological threats, chemical threats, nuclear blasts and radiation threats, you’re given very superficial and useless information (if you’re given any at all; the site is hosted by Akamai and seems to work very poorly in Europe). You’re told that if you feel sick, maybe you are and maybe you need medical attention, or then again, maybe not. In any case, listen to the radio and wait for the authorities to tell you what to do. And do stay put, unless told to move, then move. The only section that contains anything like useful information is the section on natural disasters.

All these pages are like that. The moral seems to be: don’t do anything until told and the authorities know best and will tell you what to do.

The history is rife of examples when this attitude has cost many, many lives. People have stayed put when they should’ve run, because they were ordered to, for instance in the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers. The SARS epidemic took off, partly (or largely?) because of the Chinese government supressing news about it. If another deadly flu epidemic breaks out world wide, it could very well be due to the Chinese government’s current coverup of cases in China. One of the greatest number of deaths caused by government attempts at avoiding panic must be the Spanish Influenza in the USA in 1918.

Actually, I could go on summing up a large number of cases where government repression of news on epidemics or disasters have greatly contributed to high death tolls. But I can’t for the life of me find any cases where any lives have been saved by this policy. If you can, let me know.

Now, if we look for situations where improved communications or information has saved lives, we are again in luck. The most talked about incidence lately, must be flight 93, which was presumably downed after passengers attacked the hijackers, because they knew what was happening in the outside world through their cellphones.

In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster in Thailand, radio amateurs played an important part, as did a number of web-sites that provided lists of missing and dead persons.

Extend communications

Most people currently walk around with a piece of electronics that allow them instant communication with anyone in the world, both by voice, images, and by text, and that allows them to be located in case of emergency. This sci-fi communicator is called a mobile phone. It shouldn’t be too hard to broadcast text or voice messages to all mobile phones in a particular area, telling people exactly what is about to happen and where they should go. Or to be on the lookout for a particular person, for instance.

In the same vein, it shouldn’t be too hard to have a magic number akin to the 112 emergency number were people in a given geographical area could call in their observations or even send pictures taken with their cameraphones. The ability to get into bidirectional communication with the entire population within any arbitrary geographical area opens enormous possibilities for disaster control and relief.

But, what do you know, the authorities in some places actually contemplate switching off mobile communications during terrorist attacks, since they could aid the terrorists. Talk about being clueless.

Information we actually need

I really don’t think you can limit the damages from terrorist attacks, wars and natural disasters by telling people to sit still and wait for the authorities to figure things out for you. Either they won’t, because they’re not there anymore, or they won’t be able to communicate with you or they will be too late. So what you need to do is to actually trust people and give them the information they need to make up their own minds if things get rough. So, what I’d like to see on a site such as www.ready.gov are:

  • lists of phone numbers and addresses to emergency health care and civil defense
  • signs and symptoms of most biological and chemical agents
  • how to protect yourself for each type of biological or chemical agent
  • how to set up local groups, command strategies, and how to get in contact with other groups in other communities
  • which types of radiation is in airborne dust, which gets into the food chain and what are the most important halflife values
  • which isotopes can one expect from a nuclear explosion, from a dirty bomb and from depleded uranium projectiles
  • which types of biological or chemical agents, and which types of nuclear materials, are most likely to be used by terrorists or in a war
  • where can one get emergency medication, advice, clothing, filters, equipment for shelters
  • …etc…

Have you seen any such site? If so, drop me a line.

2005-08-10: Bruce Schneier blogged about “the myth of panics”.