Press Wrapup–Part I

So two of the interviews I gave appeared in print, and the gun quote appeared in both. Which makes me think in some small way it was worthwhile.

I’ve reproduced the Montreal Gazette piece below. You can read the Hour piece here. There’s only one obvious problem with the Hour piece: never in my life have I claimed to any person (or for that matter any machine) that my area of specialization is “in the impact of new media and technology on crime.” But at least the quotes are right.

A city in crisis grabs cellphone::[Final Edition]
BERNARD PERUSSE.  The Gazette.  Montreal, Que.:Sep 18, 2006.  p. D1

Students reached out to loved ones, drawing them closer to Wednesday’s events

Alexis Boulva was frustrated by the 20 minutes it took him to reach and reassure friends and family in the wake of last week’s shootings at Dawson College.

The 20-year-old student in electronics technology said he was about 50 feet away when the shootings took place.

He made a first attempt to call his father while huddling with other students in an administration office. He was unsuccessful.

After he had left the campus, he walked to a friend’s house. En route, at 1:50 p.m., he was able to use his cell and lost no time.

By his count, he made five quick calls – to his parents, some friends and his girlfriend’s family – and fired off a text message to his sister. He received roughly the same number of calls.

“I was pretty lucky to be able to get away from the action fairly quickly, but other people weren’t as lucky, and weren’t able to call their loved ones and tell them what was going on,” he said.

Wednesday’s shooting spree was the first Montreal crisis in which cellphones seemed ubiquitous – so ubiquitous that that’s why Boulva couldn’t call out: cellphone circuits were overloaded.

When the Ecole Polytechnique massacre took place in 1989, the de rigueur cellphone for virtually every student on college campuses was in the future. After 9/11, however, we would struggle to forget the images of spouses making that last call home to their families on a cellphone. The immediacy of those final moments seemed to forever redefine the way people react in a crisis.

During the hour following the first evacuation of students on Wednesday, Telus reported 11 times more calls than normal, while Bell Mobility reported 20 times more activity.

“Within seconds, I’d say, we noticed a change of behaviour within our network,” said Guy Raymond, engineering and operations vice- president of Bell Mobility’s wireless network.

“And as we monitored the news at our control centre, we linked it with the tragic event. Immediately, we went into crisis mode. Our technical experts were online and ready to take action.”

Police and emergency response teams were quickly provided with extra network capacity, he said, although the increased demand in a very small area made it impossible to process all calls from regular users.

Cellphones “give people involved in the event a way to both coordinate their actions with one another and get messages back and forth very quickly,” said Jonathan Sterne, an associate professor of communication studies at McGill University.

“That’s a wonderful thing, in the sense that there’s this outpouring of information from the scene almost the minute it happens.

“But the flip side of that is that there are many competing stories, and that was one of the big issues” on Wednesday.

Sterne said the use of cellphones in a crisis serves another important function, one that changes the way we receive information in moments of panic.

“It provides a way for people at a distance to become more involved in the event than they would otherwise. It’s a multidirectional medium, as opposed to the broadcast media. You have people actually involved communicating.

“That can be as simple as someone calling friends and family members and saying, ‘I’m safe,’ or it can be very elaborate ways of getting your version of the story or getting the information out – for instance, somebody who’s got a cellphone through which they can post a blog.”

On Wednesday, some students used their phones to transmit photos, even video.

Sterne was not prepared to conclude that frantic cellphone action in the aftermath of the shooting contributed to the panic.

“Traditional TV coverage can also feed widespread panic very quickly, but because it’s unidirectional, people are just sitting there watching, saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ where at least with a phone call, there’s some back-and-forth.”

That back-and-forth helped bring a measure of relief to many parents. After learning about the incident from a work colleague, who also has a daughter at the CEGEP, Marilyn Melnick-Beinglas phoned her son Rafi, 17, a student in the arts and culture department.

“He had run out of the building and, with bravado, said, ‘Oh, Mom, everything’s OK. There’s lots of police.’ I said ‘Rafi, get out of the area.’ ”

A second and third call allowed her to keep in touch with her son, she said. “It was really bizarre to me when I heard afterward that the lines were down. I got through to him three times between 1 and 1:30.”

Stacey Masson, a Telus spokesperson, said text messaging, which takes up less bandwidth than a conventional call, was a viable option for some during the peak overload hour Wednesday. And while the sudden and unforeseeable nature of the day’s horror allowed for no planning, the company has two

SATCOLT systems (satellite cell sites on light trucks) ready to help emergency responders and government officials in the event of a more prolonged crisis that threatens communication, like the ice storm of 1998 or the World Trade Centre disaster in New York.

Neither Telus nor Bell Mobility would provide statistics to show whether communication between family members has increased via sales of family-oriented plans in the last few years.

“They’re a strong product within our portfolio, and families take advantage of them,” Raymond said.

Sterne said it is important to keep the cellphone issue in perspective. “If you’re talking about the importance of technology in this event, the most important technology was the gun,” he said. “Everything else seems so much more minor than that.”