A Social Network for Emergency Notifications

Canadian start-up ePACT’s dedicated system keeps organizations connected in emergencies

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” If your kid’s school or your workplace is closed—let’s say a heavy snowstorm comes through, or a hurricane approaches—how does the word get out? Some organizations use automated dialing, but others still rely on the very 20th-century practice of a phone tree, in which everyone has two or four people that they relay the news to.

And how do you, personally, get the word out when it comes to your friends or family—a death in the family, a relocation after a hurricane, a change in plans for a church group or a school club? You’d be lucky to have a phone tree.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it seems crazy not to throw some technology at this problem. And that’s what the folks at ePACT, that’s e-p-a-c-t, have done.

My guest today is Christine Sommers, one of ePACT’s cofounders. She’s a strategic planner and management consultant whose clients over the years have included Rogers Communications, HSBC Canada, and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

She joins us by phone from North Vancouver, in British Columbia.

Christine Sommers: Thanks so much for having me.

Steven Cherry: Christine, to start with a hypothetical, say, a hurricane. . .oh, let’s just name it Sandy. . .sweeps through the area. Now, here at the IEEE, let’s say the magazine staff here in New York wanted to manage its own set of notifications. Would we be a typical user? And how would it work?

Christine Sommers: Absolutely. So any organization that’s concerned with emergency management communications or having information related to medical conditions, like someone’s allergies or if they’re on medications and they have a heart attack, and that spans everything from, as your example, employers, churches, as you mentioned, schools.

So on the example of an employer, they would invite their staff to connect, and then once connected, they can communicate out. So in the example of a hypothetical earthquake, they would actually use the system both in advance of the crisis, during it, and after. So they could actually send out messages to relay new information on when to evacuate, if there’s new supplies or resources they want people to be able to access, and then afterwards to check that everyone is okay and let them know it’s safe to return back to work or home or what have you.

Steven Cherry: Now, you’re sending e-mails, but wouldn’t text messages have more immediacy?

Christine Sommers: Yeah, right now we’re in closed beta with a number of organizations and families providing us feedback on our system enhancements before we go live to all this spring. And one of the things we implemented right away was the use of e-mail, because during everything from right back, actually from Katrina right through to Fukushima, Japan, and superstorm Sandy, what we found was the most reliable channel that was accessible to people was Internet.

But our next sort of iteration of the product is going to launch not just text messaging but also the ability to do app to app. So we’re really ensuring that we’ve got redundant communication capabilities for families to communicate individually across their support network as well as organizations. So that will be coming later this year as well, where we’ll have the sort of three redundant communications capabilities.

Steven Cherry: Here at Spectrum, we have an e-mail alias that includes everybody that works in the New York office. How is this better than an alias?

Christine Sommers: Well, what we’ve found with some people, particularly when you get into the busy lives of parents and schools or sports teams, is that when you have things like aliases, a lot of the times they’re used for anything from hot-dog day announcements to field trips to emergencies.

So what we’ve found is that by having a dedicated system that people understand, this is really used in a personal crisis, like somebody is ill or injured, right through to a large-scale disaster. It’s something that they’ll not necessarily push to the side and go, “Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s another communication coming out for various other non-urgent-related needs.” So really making sure that this is a dedicated system so people are a lot more responsive to it and pay attention a little bit more.

Steven Cherry: My intro took phone trees to task, but what’s wrong with them?

Christine Sommers: You know, in the case of a hurricane, the first thing to go down is landline and cellphone calls. So they either get flooded from everybody picking up the phone, trying to contact their loved ones, or they’re shut down completely for just 911 emergency services.

So phone trees really are not an effective way to ensure that everybody’s connected and able to get the communications they need. But in the case of an individual emergency, what we’ve found with everybody traveling, parents that have multiple jobs, and grandparents taking care of kids right through to nannies and neighbors, the ability to do sort of blast messaging is so much more effective, and you can have a lot faster response and support for people when you can use technology like that rather than having to pick up a cellphone or a landline and having to call individuals one by one.

Steven Cherry: You mentioned that you’re in a beta right now. Your very first version, I guess it was your alpha release, was in a local school in Vancouver. I guess that went pretty well.

Christine Sommers: It did, actually. We launched with two schools, and really it was the typical new technology, where we look back on it now and it looks visually really ugly [laughs] but was outstanding in letting us collect data on both the organizational side, in regards to what are their needs, and how are we really able to improve efficiency for them, but more than anything, reduce risks.

And that was really critical for us, and we were able to prove that, as well as produce a report that we used for both in Canada, for provincial government ministries, for education, and we’re using it now in the states, and we’re talking to folks down there. But also on an individual level, with schools and sports teams, etc., to be able to say, “Today a lot of these organizations are using pieces of paper to collect and manage emergency information for those they support, and it just, you know, it’s not legible, sometimes it’s not complete, it’s not accessible in an emergency.” So we’re able to really capture and confirm a lot of the benefits that our programs provide for organizations.

And then for families, what we’ve found is we literally get hugged sometimes by parents, because in North America, children are involved in programs upwards of six to 10 times a year, requiring their emergency information, and so many parents are having to take hours to fill out these paper forms. So the fact that our system is not just a single emergency record that they enter once and can update anytime and anywhere using the Web, but then also build a support network for them, the parents were just thrilled by it. They felt like it was not just a huge convenience but also a huge advantage in peace of mind that their kids and their family would have greater support through it. So, it’s nice to be hugged.

Steven Cherry: That is nice. Now pretty much everyone at Spectrum has a LinkedIn account, and pretty much everyone in the world has a Facebook account and maybe Twitter also. Why not just piggyback on these existing social networks?

Christine Sommers: Yeah, you know, when we first started, we actually had that in mind, because we really noticed things like Twitter, things like Facebook. During the whole Japan earthquake tsunami crisis, there was a lot—and there’s also another social network in Japan called Mixi. They really were leveraging that for information sharing and posting status updates of “I’m safe” or “Do you know where my sister, daughter, whatever is?”

But the problem with those is that LinkedIn or Facebook, they have a very specific need. LinkedIn is sort of your résumé and your colleagues from work that you’re connected to, and it’s a fantastic product for that niche. Facebook, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s a social network, and so you’ve got everything from pictures of what you ate for dinner last night through to connecting to people that you went to elementary school, that you really don’t have anything in common with other than that.

So what we found when we looked at existing networks was the people that are most critical to you in an emergency, like your children’s nanny through to grandparents, they’re not using those systems. And there’s so much other content and tools and resources that are not related to a crisis, that it really just, it quickly got bogged down and didn’t allow what we needed or wanted to provide in regards to the best response and support for people in any kind of crisis. So that’s why we decided to look at those programs and leverage what’s already out there in regards to people’s behavior and the technology available but really create a dedicated system.

Steven Cherry: There’s also the issue of trust. I guess a lot of people don’t trust Facebook and some of the other networks, but. . .

Christine Sommers: The privacy on that is a little bit different, for sure, and that’s No. 1 for us. Privacy and security is critical for families, obviously for their information, and they completely control their accounts and who they connect and share that information with, but obviously, as well, for the organizations, ensuring that if they’re collecting and managing this information, that whatever system they’re using is using the best in regards to security encryption and protection and absolutely maintaining the best of privacy standards.

So we’ve worked really closely with a lot of public entities, governments, etc., to make sure that we’re of the best standards for both of those, but also making sure that families really understand that they control their accounts at the end of the day.

Steven Cherry: So what’s the business model? What are you charging for, and how much is it?

Christine Sommers: So for families, it’s free. We really wanted to ensure that we can help families better connect and protect and spread this as quickly as possible. So what we’ve looked at is, in reducing the risks and improving efficiency for organizations, they’re really actually happy to pay for an improved emergency management system, and what we’ve been doing is working both with public school boards, but also working with private groups like sports teams and private schools and those types of organizations.

And what we’ve found is that for our public schools, they’ve sort of said that they’re comfortable within their existing budgets of [US] $3 per student per year, so that’s sort of our starting point. And then private entities have actually talked to us about potentially increasing the amount, but then maybe doing a revenue share with us so they can use some of that, you know, pass that to their end user, but then use some of the cost to improve, as an example, their emergency training or increase their emergency supplies and kits that they have, that they’re using in case of an emergency. So we’re sort of in the process of negotiating per organization, but our base is $3 per member per year for each organization.

Steven Cherry: You and your cofounder, Kirsten Telford, started ePACT with the help of Vancouver’s GrowLab accelerator. What is GrowLab, and what did it do for you?

Christine Sommers: So, it’s a local incubator accelerator, and twice a year they actually take on a group of companies, about five, I think. It’s one in the spring and one in the summertime, and basically they allow very, kind of, hands on mentorship, access to introductions, to everything from people who’ve kind of “been there done that” through to investors.

But more than anything, what we’ve found is that being in a start-up is such a new and unusual animal in that it’s one of those situations that doesn’t happen often in life, where you really can’t understand it until you’re in it. So being able to leverage their expertise, their advice, having them kind of hold your feet to the fire on everything from your business model to looking at how you’re developing relationships and doing your sales process. They really are an outstanding resource for start-ups to basically, for lack of a better term, just really truly accelerate your business.

Steven Cherry: Well, Christine, certainly as everyone in New York knows, or Newtown, Conn., for that matter, there’s certainly a need for emergency communications and notifications, and so I wish you all the best of luck with ePACT, and thank you for joining us today.

Christine Sommers: Oh, thank you so much. It was great speaking with you.

Photo: Michelle McLoughlin/REUTERS

This interview was recorded Tuesday, 2 April 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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