How tech helped me navigate an environmental crisis

Sections: Communications, Gadgets / Other, Mobile, Smartphones, Web

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There is a major environmental crisis happening in my area right now.

On Friday, November 30, a train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed in Paulsboro, New Jersey.  The bridge was over Mantua Creek, a small tributary of the Delaware River.  The chemicals leaked into the creek and released a highly toxic gas into the air. Residents were evacuated within a half-mile radius.  Residents in surrounding areas–including mine–were advised to stay in their homes with windows and doors closed.

I had just moved into my new home a couple of days before (yea, I know), so I had no phone or television service.  Wireless tether was my only means of communication with the outside world.  Even with this apparent handicap, I was consuming more information about the crisis than my friends and neighbors.  Welcome to the 21st century crisis.

Shortly after the crisis struck, I was checking my Facebook newsfeed.  A reliable (more on that later) friend of mine shared a status with information regarding the accident.  I immediately told my fiancee to warn her grandfather about the incident.  He was not aware of the crash (despite being just blocks from it), but left long before mandatory evacuations.

After loved ones near the scene were accounted for, I immediately checked Twitter to see what local users were saying.  I typed “Paulsboro” and within seconds learned that the chemical was a “Class A” carcinogen named vinyl chloride.  At that time, networks were unsure which chemicals had spilled.

I got a call from my fiancee.  She asked me how I found out about the crash before so many people knew.  Her grandfather also expressed curiosity, as if I were a superhero in disguise.  This is the power of the internet.  Users armed with mobile devices are capable of spreading information faster than any television news crew–which obviously must drive to the scene and check the legitimacy of their sources.

Legitimacy brings me to another point.  As I tout the power of the web, I must cautiously remind you that reliable sources are important. The gentleman who I received the update from is a former classmate of mine.  If he makes a serious Facebook status, he means it.  The same can’t be said for all of my Facebook friends or everyone on Twitter.  I would be lying if I didn’t admit seeing plenty of bogus Twitter updates. One, for example, stated that President Obama was on his way to Paulsboro.  Common sense tells us that the President of the United States wouldn’t head to a toxic crisis zone, especially not before the crisis was resolved.  Still, many people tweeted this misinformation.

Consider a worse scenario: what if someone tweeted that it was OK to open windows and doors before the local authorities?  Please don’t be mistaken, your local authorities should be your primary source of information during a crisis.

The internet, like all things powerful, must be used responsibly.  Users can spread valuable information or damaging misinformation.  In this instance the information was valuable to those who did not have access to traditional media and, in the beginning, kept those individuals even more informed.

The cleanup is ongoing.  Please keep the people of Paulsboro in your prayers.

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