NRC scientist invents intelligent e-mail for emergency services

A National Research Council scientist is developing a tool inspired by social networking software that will rank, filter and distribute e-mail messages to Canadian emergency services departments.

The application, called EM-Flow, will use intelligent software agents to analyze message content semantically through keywords, but also according to the recipient’s pre-defined priorities and the rate at which it is moving through a network. Public Safety New Brunswick is among the early candidates for a pilot test of the software, which is being co-developed with a researcher from the University of New Brunswick.

Dr. Steve Marsh, a research scientist with the NRC’s Institute for Information Technology in Moncton, N.B., said disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in southeast Asia underscored the importance of real-time communication.

“They’re interesting triggers, because if you look at them, you can see you can’t prevent things like that, but you can put yourself in situation where you can handle them better by getting information at the right time,” he said. “It’s a case of getting to know stuff before you need to know it, filling in gaps in intelligence in an automated fashion so that you can do your job better.”

Beyond text-based e-mail messages, Marsh plans to develop EM-Flow so that it can also sort transcripts of phone calls, forms filled out online, images and various sensor networks throughout an environment. Though the aim is to create a familiar e-mail interface, Marsh said the tool will work in a client-server model to query a database remotely. It would not necessarily require integration with popular messaging programs such as Microsoft Outlook/Exchange, he added, but it should do a better job of identifying what constitutes emergency communication.

“There aren’t many times you get messages from people with the priority set. If you do, they usually choose high priority because they think they’re the most important person on the planet,” he said. “Everyone’s going to try to give you stuff. It’s a question of contextualizing that.”

Ernest MacGillivray, director of the emergency measures organization at Public Safety New Brunswick, characterized the old days of emergency management techniques as “a bunch of guys in a room trying to figure out what happened yesterday and putting out a report tomorrow.” Tools such as e-mail are changing that, he said, but are also creating a sense of overload that impedes effective responses.

“If we allow you to send in your Web camera shots or cell phone shots, you need a way to manage that,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the infrastructure to accommodate people sending information. The larger challenge is, how do you sift through that and serve up information that’s useful and timely and relevant?”

Besides the business opportunity it presents, Marsh said EM-Flow is well-suited to emergency services organizations that, more often than not, have already established definitions of what emergencies are and what processes should be in place to deal with them.

“They’ll use anything they can. E-mail is the tool of choice right now,” he said.

Marsh plans to commercialize EM-Flow by forming a spin-off company within the next six months.

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