Depending on who you speak with – or what publication you read – the Boston bombing saga was either a triumph or failure for the tech community. We’ve been pondering the evidence for several days now, and have concluded that it’s not enough to declare victory, defeat, or even say that the truth lies somewhere in between. Instead we believe that there are valuable lessons for everyone that makes up the general community, and especially niche communities like Lucene/Solr. But before we get to those lessons, it behooves us to look at what worked, and what didn’t. Getting a summary grasp on those things can help us imagine what could work next time we’re faced with a crisis like this.
Let’s start with what didn’t work – or what has largely been perceived not to have worked. Perhaps the biggest story here is the hailstorm of criticism in the media for the role that Reddit, a popular social-media channel, played in crowdsourcing leads about potential suspects. The work generated several false leads – and one highly publicized false ID —triggering many prominent voices in the media to accuse Reddit users of vigilantism (check out CNN and Mashable for some of the color). Reddit’s general manager eventually apologized to the parents of the falsely identified victim, a university student who had been missing a month prior to the bombings. Not surprisingly, the incident is now cited as evidence that social media was a failure during the Boston saga (more on that in a bit). But social media was not the only technology singled out for derision. After the second suspect was apprehended, a number of outlets began posting stories about the failure of facial recognition technology. Writing on Sunday, CNET’s Steven Musil reported, “[d]espite several images of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from the scene of the deadly bombings and the existence of images of the brothers in official government databases, facial-recognition software was unable to put names to their faces.” Failing to live up to its promises, facial recognition technology did little to relieve the “painstaking and mind-numbing” work of investigators. As the Washington Post observed, “One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times,” a burden that had been imagined to become unnecessary, or extinct, in the age of tech-assisted sleuthing.
On closer examination, technology got a lot of things right (see the story in the National Journal, which provides an overview of some of the tech). The first star was closed circuit TV, which provided investigators with critical footage of the suspects. After the second suspect was caught, the star was heat-sensing cameras, which a helicopter used to spot presence of the victim in a boat just outside the perimeter of the first sweep through Watertown. But camera phones also played a key role. Brian Resnick at The National Journal described the way the evidence first gathered on closed circuit stimulated the gathering of evidence from the crowd: “After the FBI released the blurry CCTV photos on Thursday, it wasn’t long before David Green discovered that he had inadvertently taken a high-resolution photo of suspect No. 2, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, as he was fleeing the scene.” GPS too played a role. As CNN reported, a “carjacking victim left his cell phone” in is SUV, giving the police “a stroke of technological fortune.” Robots removed the tarp covering in the boat where the second suspect was hiding, and investigators used a special device on the first suspect to rapidly capture and share his fingerprints with a database that provided information critical to the hunt. But even social media had a few shining moments, despite the Reddit blowup. Once the suspects were correctly identified, information on YouTube and Twitter began to paint a picture of the two suspects. Social media was credited with helping to share relevant and timely information to people following the story, often faster and with more detail than from the mainstream media. Reddit, too, got a thumbs up for work by other members in its community. As CNN reported, Redditors “used Boston-area threads to let visitors know what streets were passable and closed, worked to get pizzas to hospitals and emergency workers, helped find hotel rooms for stranded visitors and even arranged a meetup at a park for playing with dogs.”
All together now
In the end, it was, as CNN summarized, an “alchemy of police work, citizen involvement and technology” that “yielded big breaks in the case and brought the manhunt to a quick conclusion.” It’s an important note to close on for several reasons.
First, technology in fact was a critical factor in accelerating the pace at which the investigation proceeded and at which citizens were able to inform one another; credit is due, for the continual development and deployment of a wide range of technologies will no doubt first responders, investigators and the general public.
Second, while technology is essential, it is not enough. It’s worth noting that two of the successful use cases of technology cited above – i.e., camera phones, and social media for sharing information – are also use cases in human empowerment. It’s not just that smart phones and social are here today to help us manage crises. It’s also that – perhaps mainly that – people have the understanding and wherewithal to use the technology intelligently.
Which leads to the third point – the third and perhaps most important lesson: the Boston saga is a big reminder that society has yet to develop a useful template for harnessing all this technology and people power. The art-and-science of the crisis response appears to be a work in progress, but we need something that more closely resembles a flexible template and “protocol.” That’s heavy on our minds this week, as we make final preparations for bringing our own tech community together. There will be lots to discuss at this year’s Lucene/Solr Revolution conference, and a great deal of it is on the formal program. But we expect that the hallway discussion will be just as interesting this year, especially given what’s recently transpired in Boston. One of the greatest roles of a tech community is to understand and develop the right balance between people power and tech power. And the open search and big data communities certainly have the opportunity to look at that balance this year and ask what that balance (to get to the right alloy) might look like to aid in future crises – to better prevent them, and to better respond.
We’ll see what comes of this in San Diego next week. In the meantime, we were reminded of the knowledge that was shared at our recent Webinar with GigaOm Pro, Computing for Disasters: Saving Lives With Big Data. One of the big lessons then: learning from past experiences, like the Virginia Tech massacre. In the final analysis, we all learn from experiences. Here’s hoping that the Boston saga makes us all wiser, smarter, and better prepared.