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PSA: MAP PHONE APPS AND HOW THEIR ALERTS CAN WARN OF VARIOUS DANGERS AND DIVERT PEOPLE FROM HARM

Wissal Mabrouk, Ruby Meyer, Johnathan Koch, OSINT Team

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

November 2, 2023


Gaining Situational Awareness with Map Technology Alerts[1]


Introduction

The US has experienced multiple gun attacks over the past week. On October 25, around 2000 local time a mass casualty event took place in Lewiston, Maine leaving at least 22 dead and more than 50 injured.[2] On October 29 around 0100 local time, a shooting in a Chicago Halloween house party injured at least 15 people, two of which critically.[3] The same day around 0300 local time, a shooting in Tampa, Florida killed two and injured 18.[4] Around 0500 local time, a shooting in Atlanta near Georgia State University’s campus injured 4, one of which in critical condition.[5] Overnight, another house party shooting in Indianapolis killed one and injured 9.[6] In light of these events, The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) finds it imperative to showcase free resources that provide life saving information such as warnings, alerts, etc and how they can help keep people safe/save lives.


Summary

Google Maps is a worldwide available tool that provides Crisis-related alerts. If a crisis is occurring near the user’s current geographic location, they will receive updates and safety information about the ongoing incident. Active crises include mass shootings, as well as natural disasters-related events such as wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or typhoons, and tropical storms.[7] The active shooter alert is believed to have been first spotted in 2018 during the YouTube’s headquarters shooting in San Bruno, California.[8] Note that the crisis-related alerts will only appear on a user’s map interface if the user is within a certain distance from the crisis zone, is at the appropriate zoom level of the crisis area, and/or is attempting to navigate through a route that leads to a crisis-affected area.[9] To learn more about the event, the user may expand the crisis sheet by clicking on the crisis icon or alert to reveal more detailed information such as updates, emergency phone numbers, related news articles or map visualizations.[10] The user may also share the alert with others by tapping on the “Share" icon or share the crisis location by selecting “Share location”. The user can also report road closures to help others navigate safely through the impacted area by tapping on the crisis sheet and selecting “Report road closure” under “Navigation impact”.[11]


The CTG Open Source Intelligence Research, Development, and Training (OSINT-RDT) Team has compiled a list of other useful Google Maps features that can help save lives during active shooting events:

  • A user can share their location by tapping their icon in the upper right hand corner. This will pull up a drop-down menu, from which the user can choose to share their location. In the case of a crisis such as a mass shooting, a user can quickly alert others as to their location in real time.

  • If a user wants to go through a certain area while traveling, or avoid a certain area, they can drag and drop their route on the map screen to set a custom navigation path. If a user is aware of an event that is unfolding which they wish to avoid, but perhaps Google Maps has not yet produced a crisis alert with alternative routes–this is an alternative solution to navigating around a crisis area.

  • Google Maps displays a color-code traffic map which displays real-time traffic data. If a shooting happened nearby a highly congested street, users may utilize this feature to look for an alternative route to avoid crowded areas.

  • Users can get indoor navigation by clicking on the location they wish to go to, and select the “Directory” option. In the event of a gun shooting, if a user is unsure of potential exits and/or places to take cover, Google Maps indoor navigation feature could save their life.

Lewiston Google Maps Shooting Alert[12]


Waze is a free GPS navigation app owned by Google that provides real-time and crowd-source traffic information. It is available worldwide and compatible with iOS and Android devices.[13] The user map interface may include real-time road closures, shelter information, and evacuation zones. Outreach action may include a request for more information via social media, Waze information via push notifications, a support offer to local partners, or an offer presenting Waze as a resource to local media channels.[14] Users may report a crisis by sending an email to Waze or share road closures information via Waze Map Editor (WME).[15] Waze offers four versions of Crisis Alerts via push notifications:

  • If there is a closure and no shelter, Waze sends a closure alert. Tapping the push notification displays a map with the closures, which can allow users to make informed decisions about their safety during an active shooting.

  • If there are shelters available, Waze sends a shelter alert, a crucial piece of information that can guide users to safe locations during an ongoing gun crisis.

  • If the user’s vehicle has a gas shortage, Waze may send a gas shortage alert. Tapping that push notification takes the user to the report screen wherein they can click on “Gas Stations.” While navigating away from the crisis, this alert displays nearby gas stations where the user can choose where to refuel to avoid potential disruptions.

  • If the user is driving in a dynamic evacuation zone wherein a crisis is actively unfolding, or a pre-planned evacuation zone Waze will warn users and automatically reroute them to ensure their safety from potential danger zones.

  • If it is a pre-planned evacuation Waze will avoid directing drivers through that area and if the user’s destination is in that location, Waze will offer alternative destinations.

  • If it is a dynamic crisis that is unfolding, Waze will provide the option to change the route.

Another map-like program available for the US public is Citizen, a personal safety mobile app created to share live and accurate information to protect the public.[16] Users receive real-time location-based safety alerts such as fires, emergency medical services, and 911 calls to ensure situational awareness. Citizen notifications are sent out within seconds of a user report or a 911 call to alert users of nearby incidents so they can avoid the area. This speed has proved vital in responding to abductions and missing elderly people incidents, very likely presenting a useful potential for alerting about shooting-affected areas as well.[17] Citizen also allows its users to connect with family, friends or neighbors to learn about significant incidents around them. The app allows users to see unfolding incidents through live videos from different angles, though privacy concerns resulting from live streaming events should be considered when using this feature. Users may also utilize the app to instantly know why there’s police activity, road closures or helicopters overhead.[18] The app is currently available in over 60 US cities for iOS and Android devices.[19] An online version is also available under the “Explore” tab in their website in which users can also visualize nearby incidents through a computer.[20]


Analysis

Most of the public is very likely unaware of Google Maps’ mass shooting alert feature, especially those living in countries where gun shootings are not common, because it only pops up while the incident is taking place. However, the Lewiston mass shooting of October 25 has almost certainly brought this function to the forefront. While those living in and near Lewiston may have been aware of the safest locations, those traveling may have been very likely unaware of which routes to avoid. In such a case, Google Maps’ information and updates are critical to ensure commuter’s safety. The emphasis on crisis-related alerts and safety warnings in these widely used apps reflects a growing awareness and an almost certain need for proactive political responses to public safety concerns. Users requiring map warnings to keep them safe from mass shooting incidents demonstrates how cutting edge technology can almost certainly be utilized as a life-saving weapon. Critical emergency information is now made more accessible to the general public during a natural or a man-made crisis, suggesting a very likely growing societal reliance on technology-driven solutions for crisis management and public safety. This societal shift towards utilizing digital platforms for personal safety and community support will almost certainly increase security awareness in countries like the US where mass shootings are common. However, potential privacy concerns associated with features like Citizen’s live video streaming will very likely grow.


Recommendations

  • Start-ups, emergency management companies and governments are encouraged to integrate various alert systems into one application with map support. This unified approach will very likely enhance incident management response efficiency. Additionally, featuring maps and archives can serve as valuable resources for analyzing past incidents and improving future response strategies.

  • Public safety and emergency management professionals are encouraged to foster digital collaboration to ensure alert system interoperability. This entails developing standardized communication protocols and integrating them seamlessly with current emergency response infrastructure.

  • Education institutions are encouraged to teach students about current apps which provide crisis-related alerts to improve emergency preparedness in the event of a mass shooting nearby. Religious institutions are encouraged to organize community-based emergency preparedness workshops focused on educating congregants about the integrated alert systems and map-supported features.

  • Tourists or individuals unfamiliar with an area are encouraged to become familiar with Google Maps and Waze functionalities to practice good situational awareness.

  • People around the world are encouraged to learn about local emergency management alerts, whether on television, in an email, or sent as a text.

 

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Crisis-related alerts in Google Maps, Google, https://support.google.com/maps/answer/9985621?hl=en

[8] Google Maps Now Highlights Locations of Active Shootings, Search Engine Journal, April 2018, https://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-maps-now-highlights-locations-active-shootings/247319/

[9] Crisis-related alerts in Google Maps, Google, https://support.google.com/maps/answer/9985621?hl=en

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Lewiston, from Google Maps, via HUMINT

[15] Ibid

[16] Where people protect each other, Citizen, https://citizen.com/

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

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