This afternoon, I received an Amber Alert on my phone. It’s never happened before, so I was surprised that it had its own icon and its own “Cell Broadcast” app, which I’ve never seen. Pretty cool! The DOJ, National Center for Exploited Children, Congress, the FCC, and my mobile carrier have spent years and no doubt millions of dollars of coordinating this alert, which is mind-bogglingly awful.
For crying out loud.
Despite all the resources behind this alert, and all the connectivity in my hand, I am now no smarter than I was 10 seconds ago.
I don’t know what I’m reading. I have to wade through a bunch of meaningless metadata, like “Category” and “Certainty”. Why do I care what the category is? The severity is “Severe” – what’s that mean? Is that better or worse than a hurricane? A tornado? A downed streetlight?
I don’t know what I’m looking for. Thank God I know what an Amber Alert is, or I’d be really confused. Is the child a boy? A girl? How old?
I don’t know how to get more information. Yes, I could turn on a TV, I suppose. Or a radio. I might even pull together the initiative to Google for it – but what am I searching for? Turns out a search for “amber alert austin” is a lot less useful than I was hoping, since the first hit tells me that the alert has been CANCELLED, which is not actually true.
What’s galling is that just a click away, I could have been sent to an information-rich page about 2-year-old Leah Marie Aguirre. I would know that she’s probably traveling with a man in a red Ford Focus. That information is available from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has been designated by the Department of Justice to coordinate this kind of information. By the way, they’re on the second page of the “amber alert austin” Google Search results. Clicking that result gets me a search engine I can use to search for “Female” victims in “Texas” missing for “Less than 1 year”, when I can finally choose Leah’s record. It’s safe to say that the only reason I did that was so I could write this screed.
How about just giving me the link in the first place? How about getting rid of the ridiculous inside-baseball metadata and just tell me the child’s name, age, some identifying information, and link to that official record? I know not everyone has a smartphone, but enough of us do that sending a URL is perfectly reasonable. In fact, it’s not just reasonable, it’s ridiculously obvious.
Let me take all the important information and stuff it into less space than the 219 characters we’re already using:
Child Abduction (Amber Alert) Leah Marie Aguirre, a 2yo girl, abducted 5 days ago by man driving in a red Ford Focus. Learn more: <url goes here>
Boom. 100% more useful, using 67% the characters.
There’s a lesson here about the tension between mission and process. The folks who worked on this alert are no doubt doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. I am equally certain that they’ve lost sight of the purpose of this tool, and who’s going to use it. The whole point of this is to get time-sensitive information to as many people as possible. When we fetishize the process that accomplishes that mission (“Severity”, “Certainty”), we disappoint ourselves and the very people we’re trying to help.
[Update: It's Verizon's fault.]