You Don’t Need Flying Cars to Save Lives

You Don’t Need Flying Cars to Save Lives

You Don’t Need Flying Cars to Save Lives

You Don’t Need Flying Cars to Save Lives

But some government technology is holding up well in this crisis.

I talked to two people overseeing 911 emergency response systems whose digital modernization — not trivial for resource-strapped government agencies — is helping the helpers help us.

In New Orleans, recent upgrades to emergency systems have enabled paramedics to do video call assessments of people with symptoms of a coronavirus infection. In Manatee County, Fla., emergency responders can now more precisely pinpoint people’s location — necessary when a call comes from a boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

If you’re thinking these upgrades seem basic, you’re right. We like to imagine fanciful technology feats, but you don’t need flying cars to save lives.

Technology with potentially the biggest impact is often humdrum stuff that drags businesses and government agencies into the age of Google Maps and Zoom.

A little tech can make big improvements. New Orleans was hit in March with a double whammy: Almost every call to 911 or its 311 information line was about the coronavirus, and at times, up to 60 percent of emergency responders were off work because of potential exposure to the virus.

With technology from a company called Carbyne, the city created a triage system on the fly. Emergency responders were dispatched as usual to people who required medical attention fast. Callers who were assessed as having less serious symptoms would get video calls from paramedics.

The technology allowed New Orleans to prioritize emergency resources to those in the most need, still help people who didn’t require lifesaving interventions, and protect paramedics from unnecessary exposure to the virus, said Tyrell Morris, executive director of the Orleans Parish Communication District.

In Manatee County on Florida’s west coast, technology helped solve a different, thorny problem: Cellphone location data isn’t precise enough for 911 operators to know whether a call is coming from the 30th floor of an office building or the first, said Jacob Saur, the county’s director of public safety.

Using technology from RapidDeploy, the operators now have more precise location data even if callers can’t give their exact location. Recently, Saur said, 911 operators were able to track someone on a boat who didn’t know where he was and needed help for a friend who had been hit in the head with an anchor.

In the future, the same system could let dispatchers message directly with callers. Saur said someone reporting a traffic accident or fire could stream video of the scene for emergency responders to better assess how to respond.

Both counties said these improvements wouldn’t have been possible without efforts across the country to retrofit telephone-based emergency operations for the internet. Again, boring stuff, but it’s expensive and nerve-racking to rebuild a public safety agency where there’s zero margin for failure.

Technology is not a cure-all for overburdened institutions, nor can it replace smart leadership and effective bureaucracy. But as these examples show, it can help do more with less.

Facebook is trying to be a little bit eBay.

The company introduced a new feature Tuesday called Shops, which will let businesses promote and sell products on their Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Sounds like a website, right? Yup, for a long time, Facebook has been trying to recreate the internet entirely within its walls.

I have no idea if businesses will use the Shops feature in large numbers. But there’s a sensible idea at the root: Why should a local toy store maintain a website when it can repurpose a Facebook or Instagram account it probably already has?

My colleague Mike Isaac, who writes about Facebook, called Shops “a website in a box.”

Shops has similarities to WeChat, the do-everything app in China that’s often the only digital presence for businesses in that country.

Many small business owners consider it essential to have a presence on Facebook. Customers expect to find their favorite shops and restaurants on Facebook (and Google), but most American businesses won’t ditch a website. That means drumming up attention and sales on Facebook can be one more draining, expensive and maddening task.

Mike said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, called the shots on Shops himself. It’s another sign of Zuckerberg taking control of decisions that he once considered below his pay grade.

  • They remind me of Wall-E, and they’re not super useful: My colleagues Cade Metz and Erin Griffith write about robots and drones that have helped deliver groceries and other essentials to people during the pandemic. The problem is the little guys can’t carry very much — a couple muffins or croissants, one customer said — and robots function effectively only in ideal conditions where sidewalks are plentiful and mean teens don’t kick them over. (I’ll have a conversation with Cade in tomorrow’s newsletter.)

  • Bigger than Taylor Swift and UFOs: Welp, here’s a discouraging analysis by my colleagues: The slickly produced, nonsense-filled “Plandemic” conspiracy video has gotten more interaction on Facebook than any other moment of digital drama during the pandemic so far — way more than Taylor Swift’s concert announcement and the Pentagon’s videos of mysterious “aerial phenomena.”

  • How badly do you want fried chicken? Cheetah Express is a delivery service on Instagram that ferries KFC orders from the West Bank to Israel and through multiple checkpoints to Gaza. Food arrives cold many hours later, but Cheetah Express has provided “a rare opportunity to enjoy American fast food in one of the most isolated places on earth,” says this article in the publication Rest of World.

The Porter brothers do Irish step dances on TikTok, and they’re awesome.

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