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April 18, 2010

Volcano 1, Internet 0.01

In a time of international crisis, the Internet failed almost utterly. At least in my limited experience.

Here are the things that I could not do over the Internet when, just as we were about to go through passport control for our trip to New York, the Barcelona Airport closed:

We could not find information about the closing posted on the Web when we needed it at the airport.

Email notifications from American Airlines about the flight delay and then cancellation came about an hour after the news was spread in the airport.

It was not possible rebook a flight using the American Airlines web site. That required a two-hour phone call to AA.

The Spanish train service’s site would not take orders for tickets. It contained no information about how to proceed, or about the multi-hour wait-times at the Barcelona station where tickets are sold.

There was no updated information about ticket availability for various trains. Nor was that information accessible at the train station except by waiting on a three hour line.

There was no obvious way to get information about the availability of rental cars, buses, cabs, or people willing to drive you to Madrid in their own car.

As far as I can tell, only three online services actually helped the stranded traveler: Twitter (see the #ashtag hashtag), Skype, and good old email.

This was not the Internet’s fault. It was moving bits faster than Icelandic volcanoes move ash. But the services built on the Net were tested by a non-lethal international crisis and crapped out. Oh, I’m sure there are cool and useful sites ‘n’ services, but I’m a fairly sophisticated Net user, and I didn’t find them, and what I did find seems not to have been built to work during times of crisis.

Makes you wonder about the implications for national security…

[THE NEXT DAY:] Given the level of Twitter activity, I’d probably upgrade the Internet to 0.2. Maybe even a tenth higher. It’s great to have a tool that’s being used bottom up for ad hoc (jeez, there’s a word I haven’t used in a while … it got eaten by “bottom up” and “grassroots”) group-forming and community support. Check the comments for some hashtags to follow.

But imagine an incident far more disruptive and deadly when we really needed to move masses of people quickly. The major transportation and travel institutions that would do the mass movement of people seem to be woefully unprepared and unable to scale up quickly. Twitter would help, but not being able to find out which buses and trains are running, etc., would magnify the disaster. We shouldn’t have to rely on Twitter for the sort of information that could come directly and immediately from the sources themselves. Not to mention that we need to be able to communicate with those sources directly so we can book travel. Twitter’s great, but having Twitter access is not the same thing as being prepared at a national level for crises.