ht_wireless_emergency_alerts_ll_121031_wgDisclaimer: this post is very, very speculative and may raise lots of potentially poor ideas. I am writing it because I think that there may be a role for information technology in certain specific instances and wanted to raise for open discussion. I am no expert in pretty much anything here so feel free to call me on any assumption (implicit or otherwise) in the comments.

All of the discussion in the wake of the Sandy Hook School Shootings has been about gun control and mental health care. And I have been thinking about that. But in each case it is difficult to see how mass shootings like this can be eliminated. Yes, I know, Australia did it but there were fewer guns about. And, yes, if mental health care treatment were more universal this could surely do something but it is unclear what it will take.

I think it is time to think out of the box on these issues. To be sure, I am not talking here about overall gun crime. And I am not talking necessarily about these mass public shootings. What I am specifically interested in is shootings taking place within schools.

What I wondered about is whether we can do more technologically. There are all sorts of things potentially wrong with what I am going to suggest but I want to put it out there for the sake of discussion.

One thing that puzzles me in the account of the horrible 18 minutes between when Lanza shot his way into the school and when he shot himself was the difficulties in communication. For the best account see Wikipedia; it is eye-opening. Now, it is easy to imagine that this might be fruitless but I did wonder. Teachers were locked away, in some cases for 4 hours. Weren’t they carrying phones? Also, when the security in the school was breached, what communication occurred? There didn’t seem to be an alarm or other protocol. The gun shots attracted the principal but that didn’t help. And there were no cameras installed so people could see what was going on.

Imagine an alternative where everyone in the school had a communication device. Even Grade 1 children could use them but certainly others. One possibility is that these had a panic button that would instantly communicate distress. When a shooter enters a school many of these will go off. Moreover, their pattern may given an indication as to the shooter’s movements. Also, there would be the ability to communicate with people and tell them what to do — stay put or move to a verified safer location.

Imagine also if there were cameras in the halls and classrooms that could have fed information to the police. Now it may be all too quick for something to happen but every minute of additional response time and information could save lives, in some case, many lives. Finally, why do the police have to arrive in order for there to be a school wide alert as to their presence? Basically, the arrival of law enforcement appears to be a definitive event. But if shooters knew or believed that the police were there, they would possibly stop being mobile and when you think about it, it seems to me that the less mobile they are the less damage they will end up causing. Yes, they could then take hostages but it is far from clear that is a worse scenario.

In schools and at Virginia Tech even, there was a greater flow of information. That mattered. In Norway, they were on camp and were not carrying cell phones even if they had coverage or a WiFi connection. And there is broader evidence that cell phones may be helping in this way.

Researchers for the Institute for Law and Economics have released a new paper that draws a correlation between mobile phone adoption and a dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s, especially instances of rape and assault. In the paper, Mobile Phones and Crime Deterrence: An Underappreciated Link, authors University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Jonathan Klick, Penn criminology professor John MacDonald, and George Mason University professor Thomas Stratmann speculate that the ability of mobile phones to allow victims to more quickly report crimes acts as a deterrent for criminals, who faced more risk in the 1990s as mobile technology became more widespread. “Mobile phones allow for quicker reporting of crimes, and, in some cases, real time communication of details about the crime and the criminal,” Klick and his colleagues write. “The presence of mobile phones increases the likelihood of punishment along a number of different margins.”

The researchers don’t claim to offer a causal connection, and point out that “mobile phone data availability precludes us from directly investigating this link.” But they say there is a correlation between mobile phone adoption and reduced crime; “although the empirical analysis doesn’t prove cause and effect, it demonstrates that more mobile phones in a state is strongly correlated with reduced violent crime measures.” To reach their conclusion, the authors examined mobile phone adoption in regional markets and compared it primarily with FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics on rape and aggravated assault.

My point here is that I wonder whether the constructive thing to do would be to think about what technology might do to help, not prevent, but mitigate these horrible events. This is an area that I think some informed policy direction may be worthwhile. Perhaps it is something that the tech community may take a lead in evaluating.

One Response to A speculative post about information technology and mass shootings

  1. YSK says:

    No guns, no mass shootings – seems to be working for lots of countries. Putting up cameras/ communication devices everywhere to solve a problem that shouldn’t exist is similar to arguing that everyone should carry guns. I know you are trying to think out of the box, but for anyone living outside US, this attitude towards guns and round-about solutions for gun-related problems is one of most bizarre things about US.

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