Governments are mobilizing, leveraging citizens like never before
Last night, as I was driving home from work, I enjoyed a unique view of my backyard. Well, “enjoyed” isn’t really the right word, because I was peering through two gaping holes that a severe thunderstorm had opened in my backyard fence when it rolled through town a couple of nights ago. This is the third time in the last three years that this has happened — I firmly believe that if the cartoon character Ziggy ever came to life, he would look like me. This was the final straw; I finally put my insurance agent on speed dial.
As I sat lamenting another thousand bucks that just went down the drain — home-policy deductibles aren’t what they used to be — I started to think about something that happened almost four decades ago, which in turn got me thinking about an article that I recently wrote for the August print edition.
When you live in the Midwest, as I do, you learn at an early age that severe weather — from blizzards to subzero temperatures to tornadoes — are part of the deal. We are a hearty lot. Just a couple of weeks ago, the tornado sirens went off at 3 a.m. When they did, we calmly grabbed the dog, the cat, a laptop and my smartphone (so we could monitor the radar map), and a flashlight and portable radio — both of which we keep handy for just such an occasion — and went down into the basement, where we sat under the staircase until the all-clear siren sounded. Been there, done that.
In the summer of ’74, however, I was not quite as practiced. One night, a storm approached. This was no ordinary thunderstorm. Usually, the sky turns a purplish-black; this one had taken on a greenish tinge, which anyone from my part of the country will tell you is reason enough to head for the cellar. We were visiting friends a few blocks away from our home. The mother of my friend offered to drive us home. Sitting in the back of the station wagon I had a great view of one of the strangest things I ever saw. As we drove down our street, every tree that we passed fell behind us. I kid you not — we would pass a tree and it would fall. My friend’s mom, completely freaked out — can you blame her? — drove the car onto our lawn — thankfully, the city had yet to put in curbs in our neighborhood — and we all raced for the basement.
When we emerged a little while later, the scene was nothing like any of us had seen before — and honestly, I don’t ever want to see such a scene again. We were lucky. The tornado hadn’t touched down. Nevertheless, it did some hellacious damage. Like a lot of neighborhoods in Chicago, ours was dotted with above-ground swimming pools, most of which had been sucked dry by the vortex. Numerous chimneys had been torn off roofs. Trees were down everywhere, as were telephone and power lines. The baseball backstops in the park across the street were twisted like giant metal pretzels. My father worked the night shift at the Chicago Tribune, where he was a printer. He had no idea about what had occurred, as my mother couldn’t call him because the phones weren’t working. He had to park more than a mile from our home and walk the rest of the way because the roads were impassible. Fortunately, he didn’t step on any power lines.
It was terrifying, yet strangely exhilarating. In the ensuing days, I learned how to use a chain saw. That night, my friends and I gathered, and like a posse in the Old West, combed the neighborhood in search of downed power lines. We didn’t find any, but even if we had, we would have had no idea what to do with the information.
That circles me back to the aforementioned article, which focuses on how governments are leveraging social media and smart devices to interact more with citizenry. One goal is to make citizens better informed. For instance, the city of Seattle maintains a section on its website called “My Neighborhood Map,” where citizens can keep up to date on what’s happening around them, from cultural events to crime activity. Let’s say that a rash of car break-ins occurs; if citizens know about it, they can take preventative measures.
Another goal is to use citizens as a government’s eyes and ears. This is being done in cities as large as Boston and as small as Corpus Christi, Texas, where citizens download smartphone apps that enable them to report the problems that they see, such as potholes, late refuse pickup, malfunctioning traffic signals and emergency incidents.
We sure could have used such an app the night the tornado roared through my neighborhood. While we didn’t stumble into any downed power lines, there still was plenty to report.
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