One hour after hijacked American Airlines jets demolished the World Trade Center, Bill Shunn did what thousands of other New Yorkers did on the morning of September 11: He began sending email.
"Laura and I are fine," Shunn wrote to every contact in his and his wife's email address books. "We are at home in Queens."
But what happened next enmeshed Shunn in the tragedy more intensely than he ever imagined — and out of his tale comes an idea for how the United States can use the Internet more effectively to respond to calamities.
In response to Shunn's initial email, one friend asked him to keep a running list of everyone who reported back. He obliged. By noon, Shunn had posted the list on his Web site, Shunn.net. He then began feverishly updating the page as a widening circle of friends and friends of friends emailed him new information about coworkers and loved ones.
"Before too long, I couldn't keep up with the number of email messages I was receiving," he says. "I had become the central repository for survivor reports in New York."
So Shunn, a computer programmer and science-fiction writer, put together a simple message board that allowed people to post information about survivors themselves. Thus was born — at 1:30 PM on September 11 — one of the Internet's first survivor directories.
This month's hijackings represented the first national misfortune in which millions of people turned to the Internet for information and guidance. Yet the experience was not always reassuring. Some people didn't know where on the Web to look for vital information about government agencies and relief efforts. Several sites reported conflicting information.
And on Shunn's survivor registry, things got dicey. Some confused users began posting names of missing persons. Others posted hateful messages about Arab-Americans and other ethnic groups. A few idiots listed Bart Simpson and Bill Clinton as survivors of the calamity.
By nightfall Tuesday, Shunn's effort at digital do-gooding was melting down. "The traffic just overwhelmed my server," he says. So the following day, he shut down the survivor registry and simply offered links to other sites.
Shunn performed a valuable public service on a harrowing day. But his experience raises a newly urgent question: In a national emergency, why should Americans have to rely on the valiant efforts of good citizens? Wouldn't it be better if a single portal — perhaps run by the new U.S. Office of Homeland Security — offered vital information for people in times of crisis?
Call it Emergency.gov — a Net company for Uncle Sam.
Emergency.gov could become citizens' first digital stop during a crisis. Financed by the federal government, housed in a secure military facility, and staffed by a small and nimble team of disaster experts and computer jocks, this new venture could provide quick, credible information during national emergencies or natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.
This emergency portal could carry the latest information about medical help, evacuation efforts, and survivors. Like most portals, Emergency.gov could also link to other sites for information on charitable contributions, airport closings, insurance, and so on. Think of it as Yahoo for catastrophes — a site that could clear the confusion that inevitably clouds horrific and unexpected events.
As it happens, the Federal Emergency Management Agency posted some good information after the attacks. So did the all-purpose government portal FirstGov. But how many Americans know to point their browsers to those sites? "Fema.gov doesn't really stick in the mind," Shunn says.
By contrast, Emergency.gov's simple, clear URL could make it analogous to 911. When your property or person is in danger, you don't stop to rifle through the yellow pages. You just punch three digits into your phone — no matter where you are or what you need. Emergency.gov could work the same way.
Jim Kohlenberger, a top domestic-policy advisor in the Clinton White House, wants to broaden the concept even further. He recommends that Emergency.gov become one facet of "an all-hazards emergency network using the Internet."
"People want to use a range of technologies — pagers, cell phones, car radios — to get information anywhere," says Kohlenberger, now a technology consultant in Washington, DC.
He suggests that the site eventually send emergency messages to registrants' electronic devices if a disaster strikes nearby. Kohlenberger's model stems from an initiative he helped launch during his White House days — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio. Today, consumers can buy specially equipped radios that actually turn on when the NOAA broadcasts a signal about dangerous weather.
Of course, says Kohlenberger, "as much as technology can be helpful, you can rely on it too much."
In times of trouble, the human touch still matters. That has become abundantly clear since September 11. Yet during a tragedy of these proportions, we've also discovered that good people with good intentions are simply not enough.
"This idea has a whole lot of value," Shunn says. "If I could have pointed people to an emergency hub on September 11, I would have happily done that. Emergency.gov is exactly the kind I thing I was wishing for."
Daniel H. Pink (email@example.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor.