Unlocking the Potential of Wi-Fi: An Always-On Public-Safety Platform

By James Wu

The ubiquity of Wi-Fi networks and the prevalence of consumer smart devices make Wi-Fi an ideal underlying backbone to provide immediate scale to nearly all buildings.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quietly held an active-shooter exercise in Virginia that is poised to have a widespread impact on public safety. Teams of first-responders descended on a 10,000-seat arena at George Mason University to test how several state-of-the-art technologies could help better prepare cities for large-scale emergency situations. This collaboration, the first of its kind, was part of a DHS-funded smart-cities initiative led by the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) for the State of Virginia.

Locating Citizens, Directing First-Responders
In any emergency situation, be it medical, a fire or a scenario requiring rapid evacuation, like a shooting, the need to locate citizens and direct first-responders is of utmost importance. These days, that is incredibly difficult.

To locate and evacuate people, first-responders sweep buildings and direct individuals within their view. Even when someone calls 911, the location service available to the 911 operator via the telecom provider often only provides the building location via GPS. But GPS technology doesn't work indoors, which means that in a large building like a shopping mall or an office tower, emergency responders are limited in how quickly they can find someone who may be on the 5th or 23rd floor.

Another problem facing emergency responders is that the communication between fire, police and specialized forces is disjointed. When first responders arrive at an active scene, they use radios and dedicated frequencies available only to their particular rescue teams. They have difficulty communicating in real time, limiting their ability to coordinate and strategize. Being able to provide a universal view of the location of people and all first-responders within a building would mean that the command-and-control teams can provide directives and situational awareness to first-responders in the field in a coordinated way.

A New Frontier for Wi-Fi
In this exercise, supporting first-responders and improving response outcomes was critical. But a key consideration for the program was scalability; whatever solution was created, it needed to be viable for rapid deployment across public spaces and government and corporate office buildings. The obvious choice was to use Wi-Fi.

The ubiquity of Wi-Fi networks and the prevalence of consumer smart devices make Wi-Fi an ideal underlying backbone to provide immediate scale to nearly all buildings. Proving that Wi-Fi could be used to accurately locate citizens and first-responders would be no easy feat, but it was understood as the best path forward to scale across the smart-city initiative.

Historically, indoor location data has been difficult to deploy at scale or with sufficient accuracy to be useful. Using Wi-Fi data to calculate location has not been accurate enough to be useful, particularly in critical situations like emergency-response scenarios. The alternative is to install specialized hardware in every building. Neither is particularly useful, and both are certainly not scalable for a city-wide public-safety initiative.

This program became the first to successfully use Wi-Fi-based location for an emergency-response scenario. Not only did this test prove that innovative data sources give emergency personnel the ability to quickly locate citizens, but it proved that by doing so, they can actually save lives—all with the added benefit of being immediately scalable to most public, government and office buildings.

Integrated Technologies for Safety
As one of the invited technology partners, InnerSpace connected its indoor location platform to CIT partner Mutualink's Internet of Public Safety Things (IoPST) network. Whereas existing solutions on the market for indoor location using Wi-Fi can identify a person within 10 metres (33 feet) 60 percent of the time, InnerSpace was selected for its ability to pinpoint someone's location within 2 metres (6.6 feet) 90 percent of the time. Additionally, the solution doesn't leverage or store personally identifiable information, thus protecting citizen privacy, which is a key concern with indoor location data. The software, which can be deployed on Wi-Fi access points, also provides a pathway to instantly scale for public safety and smart-city initiatives.

In addition to locating citizens, first-responders in the exercise wore Wi-Fi tags to provide an additional layer of information and accuracy regarding the locations and movements of its response teams. The data was presented to the command-and-control team on a display that visualized the flow of crowds through the space and inferred where the active shooter was located. Furthermore, it was possible to track and "see" where the first-responders were in relation to each other throughout the arena, expediting efforts to resolve the situation.

In a real emergency situation, the system would identify the locations of smart devices within a building, such as phones, watches, tablets and laptops. Meanwhile, first-responders at any level of government can use asset-tracking tags to allow command teams to direct rescue teams in concert and improve response times. While the identities of those team members could be differentiated, citizens inside would remain fully anonymous, thereby preserving privacy while providing a layer of security. Ultimately, this is about taking the rudimentary promise of what most of us know Wi-Fi to be right now and, through novel innovation, configuring a highly adaptive public safety network that brings immediate value to smart-city strategies and citizens.

Preserving Public Safety With Predictive Data
From this exercise, knowing the world of big data, machine learning and predictive analytics that are now operable, we can imagine new ways to support public safety. Wi-Fi-enabled technology can monitor indoor spaces, such as schools, museums and public transit, while algorithms can analyze patterns of movement and identify anomalies.

Speed to response and the coordination of that response is critical to the outcomes in any emergency-response scenario. Using a readily available technology such as Wi-Fi to rapidly deploy public safety solutions is now not only viable, but available for smart-city initiatives. As governments work with cities to create policies around the best practices for public safety, the technical capabilities to support improved efforts are emerging. The same information we've become accustomed to outdoors will unlock incredible solutions for the public good when used indoors as well.

James Wu is the CEO and founder of InnerSpace. He has dedicated the last 20 years to building award-winning products for notable technology startups, including Platform Computing, Rypple and Kobo. Playing a pivotal role at each company, he built and led product development while honing his understanding of what it takes to develop a team, product and company from early days to global success. James is the conceptual visionary for numerous consumer products and is the primary inventor on more than 30 patents related to user experience design. He was responsible for setting the strategic direction for Kobo's portfolio of products, including websites, mobile apps and award-winning e-reading devices, and has managed large teams of experience designers, interaction architects, industrial and mechanical designers, researchers and prototypers. He earned a Ph.D. in computer science at Queen's University. Visit him online at LinkedIn.