Improving AMBER Alerts

I live in Italy, and I’ve never received an AMBER alert on my phone, because we have no such system here. AMBER alerts are a child abduction system that originated in the United States in 1996 (more on Wikipedia) and that allow the US government to send emergency SMS-like alerts when they believe a child has been kidnapped.

Last night, I watched my Twitter timeline quickly report that the state of California had issued the first AMBER alert at 11 PM (local time). Support for AMBER alerts was added by Apple in iOS 6, and these special alerts get an also-special and loud “siren” notification sound that can’t be changed. They don’t work properly with Do Not Disturb, and they don’t contain additional information or links to photos for the suspects or victims. As a result, many iPhone users who live in California got to experience an AMBER alert for the first time last night, and they were not pleased with the lack of clarity and information in the system.

I think that, for a great and potentially life-saving technology such as nation-wide AMBER alerts, Apple should ensure that iPhone users can properly understand it and not disable it.

Craig Hockenberry has posted a thoughtful critique of the current design of AMBER alerts, suggesting some possible improvements:

This is clearly a problem where cooperation between Apple, the Department of Justice, and the public can improve a system where everyone benefits. Better usability with AMBER Alerts is case where “think of the children” isn’t a trite platitude.

Over at Macworld, Lex Friedman has a good overview of what the AMBER system is and how it works:

It also doesn’t help that the government’s messages via the WEA system are more limited than tweets: They get 90 characters to craft their messages, not enough to include all the relevant details available in an Amber Alert. That’s because the system doesn’t use the standard SMS approach; it’s a special system that’s not subject to delays or congestion from other messages.

As also linked by Hockenberry, Michael Jurewitz’s idea is simple, yet clearer than what the government (and, by reflection, the iPhone) is doing: just call them “Missing Child Alert”.

I’m not judging people who disable AMBER alerts. The system is a powerful resource, made even faster and more ubiquitous thanks to smartphones, but it should be improved in terms of how information is displayed.

Source: amberalert.gov