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Ask HN: Why does a pizza app know my location and 911 doesn't?
45 points by ponderatul on May 16, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments
I know I don't have all the facts. But apparently the system 911 is using to find your location, depending on where you live can have a 10% to 95% chance of finding your exact location; and by 2021 they still won't be able to find 1 out of 5 people.

Can someone tell me, if we're talking about bold people tackling the world's biggest problems, is there anyone working on this? It seems to me like an obvious, ripe place for disruption.

Here's a source of the problem explained in more detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-XlyB_QQYs

I understand the technical limitations.

But here's what I don't understand at all...

Has anyone ever been sailing? On yachts we have radios, but these radios are designed assuming the person operating it might be completely ignorant.

So we have this literal red button, you lift a flap, hold down the button and the radio sends an SOS with complete GPS coordinates and boat name on Channel 16. Then it leaves it on channel 16 so you can describe the emergency.

So back to smartphones, on smartphones we have dialer apps, these apps know when you dial 911. Why in holy heck don't they have a big red button on-screen which when pushed sends your current GPS coordinates USING VOICE over the open line?

Here's what we need to do that:

- Dialer app. CHECK.


- Some kind of UI. CHECK.

- Text to voice system. CHECK.

We have all of the components to roll out a system TODAY which tells 911 via voice where you are calling from. It would almost be free, but we haven't, and nobody is suggesting it.

Everyone is talking about these crazy complicated standards that will, best case, be available in 2021 and cost ungodly amounts. I am talking about using voice which the operator themselves can type in.

Am I mad here? Why isn't this a thing? Why doesn't the dialer even DISPLAY GPS coordinates when you dial 911?

Seriously I bet if someone made this a big deal we could get Apple and Google to sign on almost immediately and this would be available within a year. All smartphones already have all of the prerequisites to do this!

India just mandated a panic button in all phones (http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/27/technology/india-smartphone-...) so you might get this kind of functionality rolled out more broadly once it's implemented there.

My android s6 active has pocket dialed 911 a handful of times in the past month. I called dispatch to apologize, they took down my info and confirmed my address. They were only a couple of houses off. Not too bad.

I must say I hate the emergency button on the stock lock screen, and how glitchy replacement lock screens are.

A couple houses off could mean life or death in a real emergency.

To add onto this: isn't this basically how many modern home alarm systems already work? I'm pretty sure that if they detect a break-in or a fire, they'll at the very least call some corporate call center (or perhaps even 911 directly) with location details and a description of the problem.

Searching "911 app" returns results. They exist.

The whole point is that you shouldn't have to download a third-party app, it should already be a feature on your phone.

Analogous to how organ donation should be opt-out instead of opt-in.

Being owned by the government by default sounds reasonable.

If you're dead, what's to own? If anyone takes specific exemption to it they could opt out - but for everyone else we address a legitimate public concern (lack of organs for donation) by accessing an otherwise wasted resource.

And it's not like this is a readily producible resource - people die on organ transfer lists precisely because other avenues of acquisition can't meet the necessary levels. It's a question of priority IMO, maybe not philosophically ideal but in a cooperative society compromise can save many lives.

You'd be really surprised how well the humans in a 911 center cope with antiquated technology. Visiting the center in Cambridge, Mass, I watched a dispatcher -- calm enough to almost seem disinterested -- do everything perfectly by being the "human layer" on top of the old system.

She entered scattershot information from a frantic caller, and using a combination of keyboard shortcuts, foot pedals (yes, foot pedals), and stand-up-and-hand-signal-to-a-colleague-while-keying-a-mic, dispatched an ambulance within seconds. Way faster than the caller would ever realize.

You're not just replacing software/hardware, you've also got to make allowances for the humans in the system. Little things make huge differences in those situations, so throwing the old system out is painful. Evolving the current one (as davismwfl pointed out) is challenging for its own reasons.

Doesn't mean it isn't important. Just hard to do.

So having done a lot of work in the 911 systems for years, I have some first hand experience here.

First, most pizza apps are just that, an app. That app has access to your phones location data through GPS and some even use WiFi location services. Hence it can send a nearly exact position to where you are standing.

Contrast that to the standard phone network and systems ANI/ALI solution, which still does not (completely) support GPS coordinates at this point. In addition, while there were phases (phase I and phase II) of cell phone location compliance put into place by the federal government, most networks and phone companies lagged far behind in implementation of those standards. On top of that, city and county 911 dispatch centers (PSAP and secondary centers) also have to upgrade their phone and CAD integrations to support better location services.

As for why it isn't being disrupted. Simple, looooooooong sales cycles for an extremely limited market that is vigorously defended by the incumbents. Seriously, it isn't rare for a 2-3 year sales cycle for a lot of 911 components and systems. 18 months is about the normal when it involves critical systems with 12 months being probably the fastest you see anything change. Not to mention, the partners you need involved to make a solution work and be palatable to the 911 centers are the exact same companies who want to keep you out of their market, so it isn't easy. Not impossible, just not very probable without seriously deep pockets to support what would likely be a 3-5 year development to first sale. It makes selling to enterprises look like a fast process and cake walk.

Why don't Android, iOS, WP, etc. utilise GPS/WiFi when the dialer app dials 999/911/111/etc. and encode the caller's location in the call?

Sure, there'd need to be a standard for doing that - if an obvious choice (or combination of choices) doesn't already exist - but to the naïve observer (me) that would seem far simpler than massive legacy hardware upgrades.

Hell, it wouldn't even have to be encoded: it could just `say "caller is at $LOCATION"` prior to connecting the caller - giving the person in the call centre clear and precise information right away.

Such encoding is already part of the various standards:


Then everyone here would complain about privacy/big government/orwellian dystopia

For 911 only? I seriously doubt it.

If it's possible, the government and eventually private companies will have access.

That's the thing, the government and private companies already have access to your location data so it should be a no-brainer to extend that access to emergency response - a use of location data that would actually benefit the owner of the data, unlike gov't and private use of location data, which has a high benefit for gov't/private sector and marginal if any benefit for the data owner.

The accuracy can vary wildly and the last thing you need is sending the response team to the wrong location. A hundred meter error can be a huge deal in an urban environment.

Plus there's the problem of conveying that information to emergency services. Each department, of which there are surely tens of thousands, may have completely different computer systems.

Essentially what you propose isn't unrealistic technically, but it would still mean every telco, major and small clecs alike, plus all the hardware/software vendors would have to get on-board with an updated standard. I say updated because this is partially what the Phase II compliance was about trying to accomplish, although it fell short. I personally think this issue is more about people/companies and not about technology cause frankly the tech exists and isn't hard. It is politics and vendors refusing to agree because it isn't on their terms or where they can monetize it.

But even at that, all the PSAPS and secondary centers too would still require an upgrade because the software and hardware they use to convert calls and strip the meta-data would need to be updated. In some cases I think today it would require more flashes of equipment versus new hardware, but it is still a big change.

The voice option is interesting, but would hit a different type of issue, as it would require retraining of every call-taker and dispatcher, and would require significant system upgrades/changes still. Most times when you dial 911 in the US your call is routed to the nearest PSAP (based on the cell tower or physical address) then a call taker picks up the call and their first question is Police/Fire or Medical. Depending how you answer this your call is forwarded to either a dispatcher within their center or transferred. Many times these call takers have limited or no access to the CAD system from which your provider will be dispatched from, so they cannot add location data to a call. In other centers the call taker could do it, but it would still require retraining. Again, stupidity and politics is the problem here, not a technical issue.

On the voice option, while we have come a long way in predictive dialing for marketing purposes call pickup and voice recognition is still one of the hardest parts, so playing the location message at the proper time to not over talk or delay the call needlessly across all the various centers in the US would take a pretty significant platform and a lot of testing.

Last point, there are still a significant number of mobile devices that do not contain a GPS chip, which leads to the other problem, location can't be a standard around just GPS coordinates (yet). But most cell providers have the mojo now to use the towers to narrow your position quickly and automatically, another part of Phase compliance but the "area" they provide is still pretty damn big and doesn't make finding a person easy, but it at least narrows the area to search considerably. But how that gets communicated would all have to be agreed to by a huge number of people.

Personally, I think I'd rather be blindfolded trying to heard cats in a field, it'd be easier then getting telcos and existing vendors on the same page.

Because 911 was designed for ordinary landline telephones, before GPS existed, before computers existed. It's just a telephone call, not an app running on your phone.

Granted, it could rely on the software running on your phone to add information for the dispatcher, but not everyone has one, and not everyone who does has the same kind. And that's a good thing!

So it takes standardization, and government regulation. Standardization can work pretty well when there's a nice tight feedback loop with customers who are interested in the results (web browsers, for instance). How many telephone customers would switch phones based on the details of how well the phone supports 911-related features? It's not like we can test them without actually calling 911.

Government regulation can also work, provided you're willing to pay the costs: time and money. Lots of time, and lots of money. In fact, it costs so much for the government to regulate things like this that we end up in this exact situation. Phones have completely changed since the last 911 regulations were updated, requiring telcos to provide location information to 911 when the caller is using a mobile phone. It took years after that regulation was introduced before the telcos were compliant, and before all the local dispatch operations could use the information.

The same would happen today if new regulations were introduced requiring the phone itself to send this information; it would take years for anything to happen. (Though I bet Google and Apple could move faster than the telcos, they've certainly proved to be capable of that.)

And that's all ignoring the inaccuracy of GPS when inside of buildings, the time it takes for the phone to determine the location, etc.

Still, in spite of all of that, now is probably a decent time to start making those changes. It's been long enough since the last updates to the regulations, and new phones are capable enough now, that you'd have a decent chance of getting it done eventually.

Because pizza apps use the GPS chip in your phone to get the Lat/Long of your location, and sends it via HTTP(S) to the pizza shop. Currently, cell phones/cell networks aren't able to access the GPS chip on your device and send that data to the receiving party.

Maybe a possible solution (and startup idea) would be to have an app for initiating emergency calls, which puts the user into a conference call with an assistant operator at the app's developer company and a 911 dispatcher.

- If the user doesn't know the location, and they have given the app permission to read GPS data the assistant operator could check the phone's location data and chime in with the correct address in the conversation.

- If the user is unable to speak, they could send text messages to the assistant operator, who would relay them to the 911 dispatcher.

- If the user is unable to do anything more than pressing a button, and if they've given the app permission for this, the assistant operator could check the messages or other data on the user's phone to try and find out what the issue is (e.g. domestic violence.)

- The user could initiate a video call with the assistant operator who could theoretically be able to more accurately describe certain issues (assuming they are better trained medically) than the user themselves could.

I live in Milan, Italy. A few months ago I had to call 112 (our 911 equivalent) after witnessing a bad car accident while looking outside of the window. The dispatcher on the other side of the phone gave me my location (which was 100% correct, both street name and number) and asked me to confirm. I suppose this was possible thanks to E112 [0], but I am not 100% sure.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/112_(emergency_telephone_num...

Actually, in Finland the local 911 equivalent (112 Suomi) knows your location: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=fi.digia.suomi...

"The 112 Suomi application enables the automatic delivery of the caller's location information to the emergency service dispatcher (in Finland). Continued use of GPS running in the background can dramatically decrease battery life.

By using this application you agree to the following terms and conditions: http://www.digia.com/PageFiles/112 20Suomi/112-Suomi-app-user's-licence-agreement.pdf Registry extract according to the Personal Information Act: http://www.digia.com/PageFiles/112 Suomi/112-Suomi-app-registry-extract.pdf"

It isn't just 911 in the states :: It is similar here in Norway and gives me a bit of worry... if I ever need emergency services, that is. I guess they can look it up, but it takes longer.

Here there is an app that will send that information to 911, without worrying about giving special permissions at the time of the call. I'm not sure why that isn't standard on cell phones everywhere, especially since phones generally come pre-loaded with apps. I know that landlines in the states send the information to 911, so I would think some people much smarter than I would be able to make an interface to go between the two. I suppose that would take some time, given how well the government seems to work together to get important things done these days.

I don't know many details about the problem, but I might suspect there's also a "perfect is the enemy of good" issue here; there are serious consequences for getting a 911 call precisely wrong, so it's better to be approximately correct and let humans do the work of narrowing-down. With a pizza delivery, if they drive up to 1234 Somewhere Lane and knock on the door asking for 1236 Somewhere Lane, someone's going to point out the problem (and if not, the cost is relatively low), so it's okay to be precisely incorrect.

Yet another example of capitalism run amuck letting people die in the name of profits.

The phone companies COULD upgrade to newer technology right now, but that would cost money.


They could wait until it is a crisis and then DEMAND that municipal governments pay for the upgrade.

Which would you do?

Why would it become a crisis? Crime is down so access to emergency services at least isn't becoming more urgent over time. And the necessary technology is slowly being deployed and integrated, so in that respect time should improve the situation, not make it worse.

I think those people who really needed 911 services and died because the services couldn't get to them would disagree slightly with you if they could and so would their families. But it's not a crisis; it's just a bunch of people dying. No big deal.

This question came up because of a John Olliver segment about this in which he said that emergency services claims they cannot pinpoint 20% (1 in 5!) people via existing systems.

He emphasized that number and tried to make a big deal of it, neglecting to mention that it really only matters in situations where the person can't describe their location anyhow.

He gave an example of someone who was in a car in a lake, and gave the 911 operator the names of the streets from the nearby sign and they were unable to find one of the streets on their map. The person died.

So people are dying from this already. And I'm sure the families are already making as much noise as they can.

In the end, the answer is: Despite our crazy headlong rush into technology, not everything is as advanced as we'd like, and there are various reasons why not. From conspiracies to capitalism to good old fashioned privacy, it just isn't there yet.

Broadcasting GPS won't be as effective at improving emergency services compared to having a better distribution of services. As you can see in this thread, dispatchers can already get an approximate location from phone data, that's good enough to start sending someone over to your location straight away. What would really slow them down is if they have to travel a long distance to get to you, that's the problem to fix if you're interested in response times.

Sounds like a privacy nightmare. Phone can override all settings and send my location.

Not to say you cant make money off it.

Government vs private enterprise.

Because human society values selling pizza more than saving lives. If we really cared, we would have a 911 app as well and it would know exactly where you are if you use it to dial 911. But, nope, we don't actually care that much.

(This is not snark, in case you are wondering.)

I think your point is basically correct - this is an economics question rather than a technical question.

My conclusion isn't that society doesn't value human lives; it's that the government isn't very efficient, and 911 dispatch is usually in the realm of government rather than private industry.

I wonder if there are any examples of privatized ambulance/emergency response service outperforming public services.

No, I really think it boils down to screwed up priorities. You can frame that any way you want, but it boils down to valuing pizza sales (or any other kind of sales) more than solving this.

On the other hand, I have been homeless for nearly 4.5 years. Putting up with classier bullshit has made me question my high ideals. Caring about doing the right thing seems to only bite me in the ass. It neither makes money nor gets respected. Just today a project of mine created to be helpful to people was described as sponsored content.

I am pretty fed up. We live in a shitty world. Trying to make things better gets nothing but shit in response.

I wish I could just check out and stop caring. But, unfortunately, I am not likely to win the lottery, so I am failing to find a path forward on taking the position of "Fuck you, got mine."

Anyway, this was perhaps bad timing on your part for posting this here. My grumpiness about the world isn't intended as a personal attack.

Take care.

Well, then I'm glad to say the society I live in cares more about saving lives than selling pizza. Our emergency services aren't any better than yours, mind you, but our pizza ordering systems suck more!

Funny I read it in his voice before reading the last line.

In whose voice? (Because I am not a "he" so, not my voice, presumably.)

John Oliver's (it was his Last Week Tonight segment that covered this).


Thank you. I did watch it last night. It is excellent. I was unaware of it when I made my remark. I don't own a TV.

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