Carnegie Mellon wireless researchers seek to improve emergency alert messaging-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, April 4, 2014

Carnegie Mellon wireless researchers seek to improve emergency alert messaging

PITTSBURGH — Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus (CMU-SV) have received an 18-month, $874,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to study how wireless technology can be improved to generate more informative emergency alerts. Additionally, they will explore if mobile devices can filter these messages based on an individual's location and needs.

When severe weather, terrorist threats or other emergencies occur, government officials alert the public by sending text messages to smartphones and other mobile devices that are enabled to receive wireless emergency alerts (WEA). These brief, 90-character messages aim to protect the public, but they also have also generated confusion and frustration by not providing enough information and by alerting large numbers of people who are not immediately affected. Thus, it is common for individuals to block these warnings.

Martin Griss, founding director of the campus' Disaster Management Initiative (DMI)Bob Iannucci, associate dean of the College of Engineering and director of the Silicon Valley campus, and Hakan Erdogmus, associate teaching professor of electrical and computer engineering, are heading the team that will study issues surrounding the creation, dissemination and reception of emergency messages and how first responders and the public react to different types of messages.

The team proposes to improve targeting messages by developing and piloting a prototype app that relies on a smartphone's ability to determine a user's location and movement patterns. A test bed system will simulate an emergency message's life cycle, from its creation and distribution to users' phones. This test bed will enable the team to explore a variety of scenarios and technologies. The more successful scenarios will be tested with public volunteers.

"What we hope to deliver through our work is an approach to greatly improve the precision in targeting and relevance to the recipients of these messages, so that they are more likely to act as intended on the warnings, with less ‘opt out,'" Griss said.

CMU-SV's DMI and its related CyLab Mobility Research Center are centers of excellence for research and dissemination of technical solutions to emerging challenges in all-hazard disaster management worldwide. The new DHS project builds on CMU's previous work in emergency response technologies, such as "CAPCreator," a Web-based tool set that makes it easy to author Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) messages that pass through the government's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) infrastructure, then on to a wireless operator, such as Verizon or AT&T, and eventually to users' cellphones as WEA messages. Researchers will use CAPCreator to route messages in the test scenarios.

Another companion project is the Survivable Social Network, a neighborhood-based network that provides small groups or nodes of neighbors with social networking communications on their smartphones that are accessible during emergencies.

"With the latest LTE-based 4G wireless technology and widespread adoption of powerful smartphones, there are both new opportunities and challenges in engineering and deploying these highly distributed mobile systems across the nation," Griss said. "We have to develop systems using new system engineering methods and tools, such as context-aware mobile applications, open-source software and cloud computing."

Other Carnegie Mellon researchers participating in the DHS project include Joseph Elm, Software Engineering Institute program integration manager; Cécile Péraire, teaching professor of Software Engineering; and graduate students in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program at CMU-SV. 

Contact: Sherry Stokes, 412-268-5976,