The Weather Network launches new national alerting system

Canada’s new national alerts system is designed to make it just as easy for individuals using Twitter to share relevant notices about disasters and disruptions as it is for a broadcast consortium with a nation-wide multimedia empire.

And it’s launching today.

The National Alert Aggregation & Dissemination (NAAD) System will be operational today (June 9). The system offers both an Internet-based and a satellite-based feed for information distributors of all sorts to freely access and filter as they see fit. Organizations that issue public alerts will fill out a simple Web-based form to publish the information.

NAAD takes the information on that form and applies the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an internationally recognized code similar to HTML. The infrastructure supporting the service is owned and operated by Pelmorex Media Inc., owner of The Weather Network.

Pelmorex has built the new alerts system, says Doug Allport, executive director at Canadian Association for Public Alerting and Notification (CAPAN), but it’s yet to be seen if third-party users will come on board. Provinces and Territories will determine who has the authority to issue alerts with the system.

Allport presented the system at Toronto-based World Conference on Disaster Management on Monday.

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“We don’t have it interfacing yet with last mile distributors yet and we don’t have a lot of issuers yet either,” he says. “We built it, now we have to work through these other issues.”

The National Alert & Aggregation Dissemination (NAAD) system is born out a decision made a year ago by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The quasi-judicial body chose Pelmorex to create the system under an operational governance structure and gave them a year to do so.

Now CAPAN is announcing that deadline has been met.

“We’re just about to enter into a new age of public alerting and shared situational awareness,” Allport says. “You as a citizen can expect to receive alerts and information you want, when you want, where you want to receive it … whether it’s on a BlackBerry or a TV.”

The Weather Network will also act as the system’s first public-facing distributor. It will use its English and French-language media channels to highlight localized alerts. That includes TV stations, Web sites, text messages, e-mail, desktop applications, smartphone applications, and Twitter.

“If any community you’re monitoring the weather for has a warning in the same area, you’ll see a flag,” says Paul Temple, senior vice-president of regulatory and strategic affairs at Pelmorex. He said critical or emergency situations would be broadcast on the Weather Network.

Rather than serve alerts from public authorities and organizations directly to the public, CAPAN has created a standards-based system that recognizes the reality of today’s distributed and fragmented communications. It’s no longer as simple as broadcasting a notice or alert with a disruptive radio or TV broadcast – you also have to reach out to disparate and highly personalized channels, such as Twitter, iPhone applications, and other Web-based services.

The system was designed with huge user demand in mind — typical in a disaster situation, Allport says. When Google Maps was hosting information about the San Diego wildfires in 2007, so many people accessed it that the system nearly entirely crashed.

The system converts warnings issued via standard form into a Canadian-specific CAP mark-up. The meta-tags allow for alerts to be sorted and searched just like tags allow users to search photos on Flickr or Facebook.

“CAP is something behind the scenes, it’s in the background,” Allport explains. “It moves through the aggregation system, through the distribution system and it comes out the other end.”

Every alert will be organized by scales of urgency, severity, and certainty. They will also contain a standardized geographical code that relates to every area in the country – from areas as small as a parish up to a major city or one of the Great Lakes. This allows both distributors and users to filter out alerts they don’t want to see, and even to overlay the alerts visually on a digital map.

“You’ll be able to identify what you want in the way of alerts,” the director says. “Maybe you’ll find out there’s a big algae outbreak at your vacation spot, and decide not to go camping there.”

Provincial and Territorial authorities were on the CAPAN governance board and have been engaged with the system, Temple says. Many have plans to put systems in place by year’s end that will see the first issuers fit the system into their procedures.

“The inclination we have is that they all want to participate,” he says. “When the first message comes on is a matter of when the first crisis hits.”

Provinces will be able to grant issuers with specific rights to use the system, Allport explains. Authority can be limited by a range of values including geopolitical locations, events, severity, and response type.

“We’ve taken a giant step forward in making this possible,” he says. “We expect that no news agency will want to be left behind in delivering that information and actually winning the attention of the audience they compete for.”

But it’s still a work in progress, he emphasizes. The public shouldn’t expect to see personalized alerts being Tweeted to them just yet – the system needs to be adopted by issuers and distributors alike.

The system is operational today, according to Pelmorex. An Internet streaming feed, RSS feed, and two different satellites on two different frequencies are up and running.

More Reading

Canadian Association for Public Alerting and Notification

The non-profit group behind Canada’s new national alerting system.

CAP-CP Map Symbology

A listing of cartoon-like icons that CAPAN would like to see used to represent different events on a a digital map.

Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Systems

Created after the Sept.11, 2001 terrorist attacks, OASIS seeks to create shared standards for public alerting systems for better international collaboration. This is where the CAP standards were created.

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