ANOTHER VIEW: Homeland security team could learn from eBay

David Stephenson

When the Homeland Security Advisory System level was raised to 'high' this past Sept. 10, it created a lot of anxiety and misunderstanding. And it showed that federal agencies must do more to actively involve the public in both terrorism prevention and response to an attack.

The terrorism threat to the United States is so large, diffuse and unpredictable, dealing with it requires a full partnership between government and its citizens. That does not, in my opinion, include an institutionalized domestic spy program such as the FBI's Terrorism Information and Prevention System.

The federal government can quickly and cheaply create an effective public involvement program by using Amazon.com and eBay.com strategies as its blueprints.

Amazon and eBay?

Those companies have mastered two crucial communications realities that would apply in a terrorist threat:
  • Individuals feel more appreciated and involved when they can choose to receive information most relevant to their needs

  • New technologies, especially wireless ones, allow real-time exchange of valuable, actionable information.

Contrast that with FirstGov.gov. It doesn't give you 'Five steps to protect your family,' for example, but a mind-numbing list of 48 Web sites that deal with terrorism.

Contrast that to Amazon, which serves up interactive choices to improve your shopping experience as you feed it information about your reading taste and other interests. Your purchase patterns are continually processed to yield recommendations tailored to your interests.

By applying that model to homeland defense, the government could let every citizen create his or her own antiterrorism portal. Users could choose information for the elderly or children, for rural or urban areas, or even how to recognize anthrax. Whatever the range of potential content, the end user would make the final choice.

The second example of an online commercial strategy adaptable to antiterrorism is to push critical information to users precisely when they need to act on it, no matter where they are.

EBay realized bidders need to know immediately'not when they get home to their computer'if someone has outbid them for an item. Its eBay Anywhere strategy reformats eBay's Web content so it can be read on any mobile device on any carrier network.

Now that half of Americans own them, wireless devices can become an integral part of emergency planning and response. The eBay example shows perhaps the most valuable application of wireless devices in an emergency: providing accurate information instantaneously to users. In an emergency, authoritative information from the government might reduce clogging of channels by people trying to get information wherever they can.

Users don't just receive bidding information from eBay. They can respond with higher bids. In homeland defense, e911 systems, which locate within 100 feet mobile devices sending emergency messages, might let cell phone users send text messages to authorities about threats.

The country's response to the terrorist threat should capitalize on how the Internet and wireless technologies have changed people's patterns of work and play. Doing so could increase their feelings of personal involvement and speed the development of prevention and response systems.

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