Why we need a public-access database for tracking small-scale disasters and unusual events

by 1389 on August 8, 2007

in 1389 (blog admin), American South, cars, trucks, and roads, counterjihad, disaster preparedness, medical, security, tech tips, Technorati, travel, Twitter

I practically never post anything to this blog about myself and my day-to-day experiences. After all, this blog is not about me! But this time, I’m making an exception, simply because, on my travels, I recently witnessed an odd series of events, and those events raised questions that need to be answered. I liveblogged these events on Twitter, along with more mundane details of the journey.

Event #1: Last Friday, northbound through rural Georgia on I-75, we were caught in an unexpected traffic jam. The slowdown turned out to be a “gaper’s block” caused by a roadside vehicle fire. When we got to the scene, we saw a motorhome that had burned all the way down to the chassis. We saw no other damaged vehicles, nor anything else indicating why the motorhome had burned.

Event #2: That same day, just a few hours later, we were westbound on I-24 through the mountains of Tennessee, when, once again, traffic came to a complete halt. When the traffic flow started up again, all motorists were herded onto the left shoulder, while a hazmat response vehicle sped by with its siren screaming. This time, we saw a truck cab that had burned all the way down to its chassis. Some liquid, probably fuel, had spilled onto the pavement. Little remained of the truck cab, but the remainder of the rig appeared undamaged. Here again, it was not apparent what had caused the fire.

Event #3: While I was still pondering the odds of having seen two roadside fires involving large vehicles on the same day, traffic stopped again, just up the road on I-24 in the mountains of Tennessee. Sure enough, we could see clouds of smoke in the distance. When we finally went past the scene, we saw two active grass fires, with firefighters working on putting them out. At one of the fires, I saw a large rectangular area of burned grass. It appeared that a burned vehicle, the size of a truck, bus, or motorhome, had just been removed.

Was this a coincidence, or something else? I discussed this with someone else who shares my interest in counterterrorism and tracking unusual events. He said that fires like these are strictly local news, and that if they don’t take place near a city or town, they might not be reported at all. Even when they do make the local news, it’s very unlikely that anybody would put them all together and report on the fact that an unusual number of vehicle fires happened on the same day. These three fires might well have been a coincidence, but we have too little data to draw that or any other conclusion.

On the other hand, what if it wasn’t a coincidence? If a group of people wanted to cause havoc and destruction, and to have a good chance of getting away with it, what might they do? We’ve all been led to expect an apocalyptic attack one or more major cities, which would make the national news and launch an immediate manhunt. But what if they were to sabotage and burn dozens, or hundreds, of vehicles in rural areas instead? How would anybody connect the dots?

Since then, I’ve been searching for any mention of these fires in the local news, to no avail. As of this writing, I’ve yet to find any news story that I can associate with the date and location of these particular fires. That’s frustrating, but it tells me that we can’t rely on the mainstream media, or official sources, to recognize these dots, much less connect them!

This is where citizen journalism comes in, which means you and me. Use whatever tools are available to do the job. If you don’t have a video camera or a camera phone, at least get a phone with web browsing and text messaging capability, so that you can transmit the details of what you encountered.

How would a database or wiki help? The task of “connecting the dots” would be much easier if we had a database or wiki that everyone could use for reporting unusual events and local-scale disasters, and that everyone could search to find patterns and causes of events. In order to be useful, this would have to be a large-scale project that takes in and organizes detailed data from all over the U.S. It would take plenty of resources to start up such a database or wiki on a server that could handle the traffic, to launch and promote the project, and to sign up enough participants to give the project a good start. This is not a one-person job; clearly, it would take more funds and more time than I presently have at my disposal. Nonetheless, this is my proposal for the future, and if enough other people are interested, we could get it done!

For now, we can improvise by using the “blogosphere” itself as our database. If you witness anything unusual, regardless of whether or not you think it is terrorism-related, just blog about it and then pass the information along to others. If possible, set up your blog so that you can make blog posts from your mobile device. Even if all you have is a forum membership somewhere, a Twitter account, or a MySpace page, use it as a vehicle for recording what you saw! After awhile, the search engines on the Web will find these blog posts, and anyone will be able to use them to look for patterns in unusual events. Using even the simplest blogging or microblogging system will get your data out into the world where good use can eventually be made of it.

Tech tip: Did you know that you can claim your Twitter account as a blog on Technorati?
It’s very easy to do. It will make your tweets searchable and it will give you more of a presence on Technorati.

On Digg, I posted a comment to elaborate further on what this database or wiki should contain:

If you can find an interactive, real-time map of disasters, please let me know. But I’m looking for records of disasters on a local scale, that are never posted anywhere but the local news – or are not posted to any media at all. And I’m also looking for a repository of data that goes back into the past, to make it easier to search for patterns over time.

Noteworthy things to track include the following:

  • Disease outbreaks in humans, animals, and plants
  • Unusual numbers of, or disappearances of, wildlife (such as the recent bee dieoff)
  • Power outages, Internet and phone service outages, and other infrastructure failures (such as the recent bridge collapse) whether there were casualties or not

The vast majority of these things will result from natural causes or human error, and not from terrorism. Nonetheless, knowing about those other causes could potentially save many lives also.

Update – August 16, 2007:

Here’s a link to a very disturbing incident. I have no further information about this, and do not know whether there is any connection between this new incident and the ones that I noticed previously. In this instance, the news story implies gang activity.

Bomb blows up truck, owner inside

I found out about this incident by using this resource:

Global Terrorism Incident Map: Here are the Links and Contact Info

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Foehammer August 8, 2007 at 7:34 pm

I’ve been concerned for quite awhile now that forest fires are being set by Islamic terrorists. Why? Because if I was one of them, I’d do it. It’s cheap to do, almost untraceable with a few precautions, it’s incredibly costly to the U.S. and requires massive manpower to combat. If Al Qaeda wants to hurt our economy, how could they not be at least considering eco-terrorism?

2 Thunder Pig August 9, 2007 at 1:52 pm

Excellent Suggestion!

I like the idea, and added my two cents worth on my blog.
Since blogger has free blogs, how about setting up blogs just for that?
Then you could apply a standardized tagging system “citizen watch” “vehicle” “fire” “next to road” et cetera.
List them on technorati as well, as you said, and I think the whole arrangement would be highly searchable.

3 1389 August 9, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for your comments!

On a related issue; i.e., the lack of up-to-the-minute news about urban transportation blockages of all types: Buzz Machine: Failing Information Structure

The same need for information about transportation bottlenecks applies to interstate highways outside the cities, especially because so much of our economy relies on the trucking industry.

4 trap32 August 15, 2007 at 10:22 am

recently I came across this site, while I don’t know the veracity/completeness of the information presented it does list sources…


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