DC Alerts Needs To Take Its Role Seriously

The idea behind Alert DC’s text-messaging/email alert system is a good one: Broadcast information about emergency situations to interested and/or affected parties using a low-latency, high-value medium.  The technical implementation is slick, too, allowing you to pick the type of alerts you receive (traffic, weather, police alerts, etc.); and permitting you to limit the alerts you receive to geographical areas of interest to you (neighborhood, schools, by address, etc.).

Unfortunately, though the concept and implementation of DC Alerts is pretty nice, the people using it have turned the system into a joke.  Let’s dissect a recent example:

Subject: Weather Report Update

Weather report update: Light to moderate rain will fall across the area through tomorrow morning.  The thunderstorms are well to the South of the District. NWS states that the heaviest rain will be in the area towards day break. Expect rainfall amounts through to the morning will range from one to two inches. WASA will have additional crews checking catch basins until the morning. DPW has provided 45 sandbags to the resident. DDOT have no problems to report.

Let’s take this point-by-point:

  • It’s raining, and there’s severe weather, but not here.
  • The water company is doing its job, and has crews out cleaning catch basins.
  • Somebody got some sandbags.
  • There’s nothing wrong with the streets.

Let’s see if I can summarize this in a Twitter-esque 140 characters or less:

Alert! Everything’s OK! (Except for this one random dude someplace, and we got him some sandbags.)

When you put it that way, it’s suddenly very clear that this does not qualify as an alert-worthy event.  Nor do most of the other so-called alerts we get.  To add insult to injury, the messages we receive from DC Alerts are often riddled with spelling errors, grammar mistakes, ridiculous descriptions, and geography snafus.

The DC Alerts system has great potential to become a powerful emergency-communications tool for the hyper-connected world we live in.  But it will never be taken seriously until the human beings using it dramatically ramp up both the quality and the relevance of the messages.