Friday, March 25, 2011

U of I sends alert for shooter who doesn’t exist, social media backlash follows.

About 87,000 emails and cell phones received a startling message around 10:40 CST, when the minders of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign emergency alert system mistakenly sent the following message:

“Active shooter at BUILDING NAME/INTERSECTION. Escape area if safe to do so or shield/secure your location.”

Almost immediately, students began texting and updating their online social networks to gather information.

Until this, the campus was at a lull -- most students had migrated home for spring break. But the previous day, U of I police sent out alerts about a large fire which destroyed a longstanding gyros eatery on Green Street, a popular destination for students. Some thought it was a poor use of resource meant to keep students abreast of life-endangering emergencies, not to be abused by broadcasting contained situations.

Then, about 11 minutes later, U of I police send this message:

“The previous message was sent in error. For details, please read forthcoming MassMail.”

Then, six hours later, the mass email arrived:

“To the campus community: This morning at 10:40, an Illini-Alert message was sent to 87,000 email addresses and cellphones indicating there was an active shooter or threat of an active shooter on the Urbana campus. The message was sent accidentally while pre-scripted templates used in the Illini-Alert system were being updated. The updates were being made in response to user feedback in order to enhance information provided in the alerts.”

The message continued, “The Chief of Police has charged the campus emergency planning office with reviewing and documenting todays incident. We are reviewing comments we are receiving as a result of the incident and will implement all reasonable and appropriate ideas or suggestions.”

But the incident had already reached national attention. The Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, the Associated Press, Time and Gawker Media.

Even Funkmaster Flex, hiphop DJ on New York’s Hot 97 radio station, tweeted and wrote about it.

This is a Streamgraph of messages containing “U of I” on twitter. Tweets made on Wednesday, March 23 with “U of I” frequently mentioned Zorba, the name of the restaurant that was destroyed in a fire that day. “Tuition” was another big topic -- as U of I trustees were preparing to vote Thursday on a 6.9 percent tuition increase for incoming freshman.

After the erroneous alert, though, the most common words in tweets containing “U of I” were “sent,” “alert,” “talk” and “shooter.” The dramatically increasing slope of the line at about 12:00 shows a flurry of activity on twitter relating to the false alarm.

This is a similar chart, but specifically looks at tweets that had both “U of I” and “shooter” in the message. The chart doesn’t go back far enough to show 10:40 a.m., when the first alert was sent out, but the height at the beginning of the chart suggests a great deal of activity around that time.

The activity then tapers off at around 11:41, but then has an echo -- possibly relating to one or more major news outlets breaking news online -- which subsides at 12:38 p.m. There’s silence, then another bubble at 3:04 p.m., again possibly relating to a news update.

The next bubble comes at 4:53 p.m., which correlates to the time when U of I police sent out their long-awaited mass email on the situation, at which point the chart ends.

Shortly after the mass email about the mistake went out, I emailed Chicago Tribune reporters Liam Ford and Gerry Smith. At the time, Smith was using Twitter to locate students who were on campus during the false alert for a news story. Smith received my email, called, and asked about the climate around Champaign and Urbana (some of my response can be read in the Tribune story, in the final graphs).

The Trib reporter was most interested in the student response, which I told them was varied. Some students like myself read the “BUILDING NAME/INTERSECTION” and knew it must have been an error, because the all-caps phrase seemed like a generic placeholder in a computer program that would have been replaced with a real building or intersection in the event of a real emergency. However, given the severity of the message, many students chose to err on the side of caution and treat the warning as credible. Their fears were evident in Twitter and SMS messages.

But the larger point, I told the Trib reporter, was the use (or abuse) of emergency alert messages at the U of I.

A team of 41 U of I students, myself included, created to gauge if alerts adequately reflected the status of crime on campus. We found that the alert system contributed to a climate of fear that did not reflect a minor uptick in crime on campus. Just one alert was distributed in 2006, while 34 were sent in 2010.

More than just a misconception about the volume of crimes occurring, the alerts also created misunderstandings about the source of crime and contributed to racial tension. contributors were recently notified that they’d won a Region 5 “Mark of Excellence” award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

As I told the Trib reporter, the recent error was “totally unacceptable,” and was just the most recent demonstration that authorities need to better understand how mass-alerts can impact the campus, and perhaps should re-evaluate their use of the technology.

Read on...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nebraska Has The Most Fire-Prone Nuclear Plant in the U.S.

While the international community focuses on Japan and its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the safety of which was seriously compromised following a massive earthquake, the United States has a renewed interest in the safety of nuclear power at home.

A probe into the safety of US nuclear plants, using data from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and data visualization software, suggests that America's plants are relatively safe overall, but that some power plants are more prone to incidents than others.

Number of Significant Nuclear Power Plant Fires 1999-2009 Many Eyes
(Click the link to interact with the data on nuclear plant fires in the US on the IBM ManyEyes website)

The Cooper Nuclear Power Plant, near Brownville, Neb., has the worst record in the country when it comes to fire safety. From 1999 to 2009, it reported six significant fires to the NRC. The plant reported two other significant fires in 1996.

The plant makes Nebraska, which only has two nuclear plants (the other being Fort Calhoun, in Washington County), the state with the most nuclear plant fires in the past decade.

Additional NRC fire inspection reports show that the plant had 14 violations between 2000 and 2009. One of those violations included a "white" violation, "an issue with low to moderate increased importance to safety," where plant operators had improper procedures to safely shut down the plant in the event of a fire.

[Download the full spreadsheet of NRC fire inspections for this and all U.S. nuclear plants here]

"Between 1997 and June, 2007, the licensee failed to ensure that two emergency operating procedures which controlled activities affecting quality were appropriate to the circumstances," regulators reported. "Additionally, the licensee failed to properly verify and validate procedure steps to ensure that they would work to accomplish the necessary actions."

Other fire inspection violations included:

2006: Failures to Properly Control Combustibles in the Plant.

2004: Failure to ensure redundant safe shutdown systems located in the same fire area are free of fire damage.

2002: Failure to follow procedure resulting in a fire.

2001: Failure to install fire detectors in accordance with federal regulations.

In one 2009 inspection, NRC regulators made several findings about the safety of the plant, and noted an event where a maintenance tech tried to replace a leaky O-ring in a control valve hydraulic fitting, but used a wrong-sized part. This caused a leak at the plant, forcing operators to take the turbine off-line and shut down the reactor.

"The finding is more than minor because it adversely affected the configuration control attribute of the initiating events cornerstone, and adversely affected the cornerstone objective to limit the likelihood of those events that upset plant stability and challenge critical safety functions during shutdown as well as power operations, in that this finding resulted in a condition that prompted a plant
shutdown from 70 percent power," regulators wrote.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), which owns the Cooper plant, was among 16 nuclear energy providers who sued the Department of Energy (DOE) to stop collection of a nuclear waste fee.

According to the Lincoln, Neb. Journal Star, the DOE currently charges the providers 0.1 cents-per-kilowat to dispose of nuclear waste. But the plaintiffs argue that the DOE hasn't been complying with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, and shouldn't have to pay the fee.

The Journal Star reported that NPPD built a $80 million storage facility at the Cooper plant to store spent fuel rods.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on March 8. The 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake happened three days later. The Christian Science Monitor wrote that reports are emerging from international regulatory agencies about lax oversight of the Fukushima plant.

NPPD officials are confident about the plant's ability to withstand natural disasters. A recent Associated Press story quoted the NPPD spokesperson as saying the Cooper plant can withstand 300 mph winds, a 6.0-magnitude quake and a 1 million-year flood.

Read on...