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'Please read this important email: you are being shot'

Are you Twittering this?

Analysis These days, no major tragedy is complete without ambulance-chasing technology boosters muscling in on the aftermath. The Asian tsunami and the London 7/7 attacks both provided a tasteless excuse for evangelists to hype their favourite cause: instant real-time communications in general, and blogging in particular.

But with the Virginia Tech massacre, the reliance on technology itself is in the spotlight.

Campus administrators took two hours to warn students there was a threat to their lives.

Police were alerted that a gunman was on the loose at 7:15am. The second shooting spree began at 9:45am.

All students and staff received this warning by email (yes, email): "A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows."

You may infer that students, by then, will already have heard the shots. The shooting rampage lasted 29 minutes. Two minutes after it finished, a helpful email (yes, another email) was dispatched telling students classes had been cancelled, and to draw the curtains and stay indoors.

As the security inquests begin, that detail speaks volumes about America's web obsession - that PC technology is again being touted as the answer. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer describes other colleges' emergency systems, and lauds "a web-based 'flash alert' system".

American students now communicate predominantly through text messages, but this fact seems to escape both college administrators and reporters covering the emergency response systems.

But mobile phones are capable of receiving emergency messages if they're within a specific geographical area - irrespective of the type of phone, and without the administrators needing to keep track of everyone's phone number. It's called "cell broadcast" and it's a 3GPP/3GPP2 and IS95CDMA specification. So it works on four of the five major US networks: Cingular, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint.

Loudspeakers should suffice for students who have their cellphone set to silent, or who don't have a cellphone at all.

Expect lots of cranky technology "solutions" in the next few days. Most will involve high expenditure programs on unnecessary equipment. Many more will advocate the latest web-based gimmicks, such as Twitter.

But if the Virginia shooting teaches us anything about technology, it's that by putting technology first, we usually choose the wrong tool for the job. So much for "social networks". ®

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