Between the Loma Prieta and Napa earthquakes: how technology has changed and how it helped shape the aftermath

Yesterday the Bay Area experienced the strongest earthquake since Loma Prieta, a 6.9 magnitude quake back on October 17th, 1989. The difference in the aftermath of these quakes shows how technology has fundamentally changed the way we communicate (as if we didn’t know it already!)

The aftermath of the Loma Prieta quake was way more chaotic than the Napa quake yesterday. Broadcast news did not quite have a handle on all the facts. Initially hundreds were reported dead, then that number went down to 63. Fires broke out, a bridge collapsed, highways buckled. The time of the quake, 5:04 in the afternoon, meant that many were at work or in their cars. Luckily, the first ever “Battle of the Bay” a World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants was taking place, and in Candlestick Park and they had just started game three. Many Bay Area residents were either at the game or watching it, meaning that fewer cars were on the road. Families were dispersed in various locations: work, home, after-school activities, and so on, and their first thought was “we need to make sure everyone is OK.”

Back then, the overwhelming majority of communication was via land-line telephones. This meant that calls to multiple telephone numbers were required in order to locate someone. I have no idea what the statistics were, a low-ball assumption would be that every adult in the area tried calling two or three other people, with everyone needing to call two or three times. The phone network was overwhelmed and collapsed, causing further chaos. Now instead of calling to see if everyone was OK, families headed out on the roads to physically find loved ones. It took hours to make sure loved ones were OK and for people living outside the Bay Area, it didn’t happen until the following day.

Quake damage to the Post Office in Napa.  Photo credit: Matthew Keys

Quake damage to the Post Office in Napa.
Photo credit: Matthew Keys

Contrast that to what happened yesterday.

First, instead of several land-line options, everyone has one mobile phone number. There’s no need to make multiple calls to reach someone.

Second, and more significant, communication between two parties is now mostly asynchronous. There’s no need to establish a conversation with both parties connected at the same time. It’s enough to send an email and wait for that person to respond. Also, with social media status updates are made to all your friends at the same time. It is that combination of asynchronous and one-to-many status updates that really made the post-quake “is everyone OK?” phase much more relaxed. As a result, no communication systems experienced downtime yesterday in the Napa area. Quite the opposite: residents were tweeting updates and photos of the aftermath. This, in turn, made sure facts reached news outlets faster, with reporting generally being more accurate, reducing anxiety even more.

Which brings me to an interesting post by Semil Shah from a few days ago about how the new batch of mobile apps replace phone calls with apps in more situations. Ordering take-out, hailing a cab, scheduling services, making a payment and so many other tasks that used to require a phone call can now be done via a dedicated mobile app. There’s no longer any need to call and spend time trying to reach someone in order to complete a task. Mr. Shah’s advice to developers is to “observe the world around you and see where people are still laboring to make phone calls on a somewhat frequent basis… Today’s consumers expect powerful yet elegant applications which will make their lives easier, and not having to call anyone to discuss logistics makes life that much easier.”

The calm aftermath of yesterday’s quake demonstrated that this trend is about more than commercial consumer applications. It’s about a broader switch from phone calls to asynchronous messaging. Yesterday, that was a good thing.


One thought on “Between the Loma Prieta and Napa earthquakes: how technology has changed and how it helped shape the aftermath

  1. Pingback: For crying out loud, how did messaging get so fragmented? | What it all boils down to

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