The Boston Marathon. I was there to cheer on our friend “Kendra,” a many-time marathon runner and a strong performer in her age group.  Our group (serious fans armed with cameras, gifts and fun) had made signs: “Whine now, wine later,” “We Love You Kendra,” and more.  Of course, we also carried mobile devices to stay connected with each other and the event.

On Monday morning, we arrived at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill (roughly 5 miles from the finish line) to watch Kendra run the home stretch. Two members of our party were in the VIP stands at the finish line. We were all receiving official text messages alerting us as to her progress every 7 miles or so.  We also exchanged our own. I was surprised at how mobile communications not only kept us in touch with friends, but also took the guess work out of finding our runner in the crowd.

Meanwhile, Marathoners sped by — runners costumed as sandwiches and Easter bunnies, soldiers shouldering 40-pound backpacks walking to honor those who’d served.  We were honored to slap their hands as they went by shouting, “Great job! Keep going!”

When the text came that Kendra was near, we enlisted people in the crowd to hold up our signs and cheer, which they happily did.  She jogged by – weary but holding to her target time. It was awesome.

Triumph turned tragedy

Triumphantly, a group of us walked back to the house, while others remained in the VIP stands to watch more runners finish the race.  And then the news came: “There have been two explosions — turn on the TV!”  We did; this New Yorker saw images evocative of 9/11. Chaos. We quickly called our friends back at the VIP stands.

We reached our friend Lindsey.  Through the phone we heard her gasp frightened but reassuring words:  “I’m ok.”

We heard mayhem in the background. She was now just two blocks away from the blast and said she had to go.  Then cell service went busy.  We texted furiously, and were all relieved when we confirmed Kendra was okay, too.

The value of information in a crisis

We started texting and emailing relatives — information, like meteors, shooting across screens on various devices. It was Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, and our communications devices had become modern-day Minutemen, informing and calming us in the face of danger and confusion. Looking back, I’m struck by the notion that with technology, more could be done for these kinds of events to keep local crowds and the world informed in instances of danger:

  •  In order to avoid overtaxing the network, perhaps family and friends could track each other by GPS or cell tower triangulation in emergency situations. I have heard so many stories of people trying to find each other in the confusion. If the amount of calling, texting, posting to social platforms overloads the mobile network, this can lead to more anxiety and calling and texting from friends and family everywhere.
  • An interactive map combining police and emergency personnel reports along with the position of individuals by mobile device number could help quell the havoc. Machine-to-Machine (M2M) apps like this use little network bandwidth, keeping it less congested for those who need to place calls.
Moving forward

The vision of race runners upended by a crowd running for safety, lives ended and changed forever, relatives and friends in lock-down at nearby locations, screen after screen recounting the tragedy — these are sights I hope never to see again. Nevertheless, the advances made to our warning and response capabilities since Paul Revere’s day dazzle and I’m certain our responses to crisis will continue to improve through new understandings and technology to help those affected.

 

Editor’s Note: The thoughts and prayers of everyone at AT&T are with those affected by the tragedy in Boston. Join us in supporting One Fund Boston by texting BOSTON to 80108 to give $10 to those affected by the tragic events. The donation will be charged to your monthly AT&T bill.