On May 1-3, an Emergency Alerting Policy Workshop was held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The event focused mainly on use of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), and was sponsored by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Environment Canada (Canada’s weather bureau), Public Safety Canada (responsible for public alerting and alerting between officials), and Canada Center for Security Sciences. Many interesting policy issues were discussed, including the unique challenges of Google.org regarding its Google Public Alerts feature.

Challenges facing Google Public Alerts

Google monitors CAP feeds and displays the alerts in both Google search results and Google Maps accessed for the affected area. Placement on the search results page is dependent on the values in the CAP Urgency, Severity and Certainty elements. In addition to the alert itself, Google displays any relevant media reports or other related stories, such as reports of flooded roads shown next to a Flash Flood Warning. If an alert is not of sufficient importance to show up on its own in a search, a specific search for terms in the alert will return the alert in search results.

Google’s primary request of originators is that they use CAP and stick to the specification, make the feed publically available, and use web-accessible formats like RSS and Atom or use Emergency Data Exchange Language Distribution Element (EDXL-DE). Google said they are seeing a lot of “bad” CAP, and they would like a mechanism to provide feedback to alert originators – how might that be done? Google is currently using CAP feeds from the National Weather Service (NWS) and United States Geological Survey (USGS). They will soon be getting alerts from FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and Canada’s National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination System (NAADS).

One of Google’s dilemmas is where to go next – how do they identify additional legitimate CAP feeds? It was mentioned that WMO has a posted Register of Alerting Authority, but that is primarily only weather-related agencies. Another ask from Google was for a global Event List. While participants felt it may be an uphill battle to convince all countries to use the same list, Google requested that at a minimum any CAP alert originators post their Event List in a free and open manner. Currently, Google displays its own event code description with each alert. The issues Google presented are good food for thought for all alert originators as more third party disseminators come online.

Alerting Across International Borders

Issues facing the U.S. and Canada regarding cross-border alerting were brought up. Greater harmonization between the CAP Profiles of the two countries is needed. Here are a few examples of the divergence:

  • Canada has 140 event codes; the U.S. has far fewer.
  • Canada uses an Incident Layer, a second polygon that defines the area of the actual incident within the greater area that is being alerted; the U.S. does not.
  • The U.S. has a cell broadcast mobile alerting system; Canada does not.
  • The U.S. requires its broadcasters and cable operators to have a CAP decoder to air CAP alerts; Canada does not.

Despite these outstanding differences, the U.S. and Canada recently established connections between their two systems and are able to exchange alert messages – because they are both CAP-based. With the hurdles of interconnection behind them, these two countries can now concentrate on capitalizing on the strengths of each other’s systems.

CAP Worldwide

It was noted that the use of CAP is spreading around the globe. Italy is using CAP; China is beginning to use CAP, using various CAP elements for their different dissemination means; Japan is using a format called JMX, which can be converted to CAP; Switzerland is also using a format similar to CAP, and the official who attended the workshop wants to convert the country to CAP; the meteorological agency in Sweden has been using CAP since 2009, and wants to convince other Swedish agencies to convert to CAP.

While the assembled 80-90 participants from the emergency alerting community knew we wouldn’t be establishing global CAP policy harmonization in this one session, it did reveal the greater needs of message consumers and what individual alerting systems can do to make their CAP alerts more user friendly.

The three-day workshop ended with a CAP alerting interoperability demonstration featuring vendors MyStateUSA, ESRI, Google, and Cellcast, all originating, exchanging and/or displaying CAP alerts from FEMA’s IPAWS and Canada’s Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System Information Exchange (MASAS-X). A similar workshop is being planned for 2013.

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