We’ve all heard the horror stories about dangerous Uber rides. Woman is sexually assaulted on back road, far from her route home. New driver’s background check fails to catch history of felonies. Reckless driving, racist rants, and physical attacks crop up in CNN headlines and our mother’s imaginations.
At first, the recent announcement that Cambridge is adopting Uber’s new safety feature — a button that allows passengers to call 911 in-app — may seem like just another corporate PR stunt. But Michael J. Martin, RapidSOS CEO and Harvard Business School graduate is unfailingly earnest while describing his experience collaborating with Uber and the Cambridge City Emergency Communications Department.
“This has been in the works for years,” he says over the phone, enthusiastic and eloquent even at 10 p.m. on a Friday. Ever since December 2012, when Martin was almost mugged in New York City, he has dedicated himself to harnessing the powerful technology in our pockets to send crucial, real-time location information to first responders.
“I had my welcome-to-New-York mugging experience,” he chuckles — then stops, his tone serious. In that moment, he says, he realized just how difficult it is to dial 911 in an emergency and coherently convey your location over the phone. Uber was relatively new then, and he remembers thinking, “If I can press a button and call a car, why can’t I press a button and get an ambulance or a fire truck?”
He took the idea with him to Harvard Business School in 2013, where Harvard Innovation Labs helped him turn his inkling of inspiration into the multimillion-dollar technology company RapidSOS. RapidSOS’s mission is to develop technology to improve emergency communications and location information for 911 systems globally.
The company’s first product was a direct-to-consumer smartphone application called Haven, which was exactly what he had originally envisioned: a kind of Uber for emergency response that called first responders directly to the scene. But Martin quickly realized that few people were going to buy into a completely new system. He needed to work through the existing 911 call system and partner with existing popular interfaces like Uber if he wanted to reach more people. So, long before any incidents related to Uber’s safety had appeared in the news RapidSOS had already identified the app as a useful tool and partner for improving emergency response, according to Martin.
The recently announced safety feature is simple: If you feel unsafe or if there is an emergency during your Uber ride, a button within the Safety Toolkit of the Uber app will allow you to call 911 and send your updated location and the car’s make, model, license plate, and driver to emergency responders, all within seconds.
Christina E. Giacobbe, director of Cambridge City Emergency Communications Department stresses that even if you stay silent, emergency dispatchers will still use information from the app to check in on you as swiftly as possible unless they hear verbal affirmation that the call was a mistake.
Ironically, RapidSOS’s collaboration with Uber turns a service many think of as a public safety problem into a public safety solution meant to combat a greater issue: a decades-long need for emergency response to move faster. "Part of the struggle is the telecommunications infrastructure,” Giacobbe says. “The carriers really haven't kept up with creating the infrastructure to allow location-based information on all calls."
911 calls in Cambridge are often rerouted from regional or state centers, and, depending on the carrier, the location information that the carrier provides to emergency dispatchers can be as wide as a four-mile radius. Dispatchers waste time determining the caller’s location. Meanwhile, we can drag and drop the pickup pin in the Uber app onto almost the exact sidewalk tile we're standing on. Uber’s emergency call system allows for this level of detail in reports to dispatchers.
Martin’s calm voice belies frustration as he explains that our current 911 system has barely improved since its inception in the 1960s. Half a century ago, local communities each created their own system, and as a result, there are currently more than 5700 call centers (called Public Safety Answering Points or PSAPS) across the United States. Some might operate similarly, but all are separate, individual systems. Furthermore, the existing wired, landline infrastructure limits the data processed during a 911 call; essentially, 911 telecommunicators today manage emergencies with no other information than a voice connection.
“So here we are, over 160 years later, with an iPhone in your pocket, and in the worst moment of your life, 911 typically doesn't even know your name,” Martin says.
“Every other part of the emergency response system is optimized… except in locating the caller.” He lists tragedies as examples: domestic abuse, child rescues, the Oakland fire, Hurricane Harvey — all situations in which the inefficiency of a call-only paradigm has failed victims.
But even at a local level, before natural disasters and large-scale tragedies strike, in such a concentrated college town of frequent Uber users, the new safety feature can be useful against the threat of dangerous Ubers alone.
Ultimately, Giacobbe and Martin see their work with Uber as the beginning of a new era for emergency response. Especially in the age of Fitbits and Apple Health, data based on heart rate and activity is constantly made available and updated to the Cloud. If this information was made available to first responders, they would no longer need to arrive on the scene and assess the situation blind.
"I use precise location all the time for Uber, Google Maps, et cetera. Why is none of that information available when I call ? And I track my fitness with Apple Watch. Why are none of these health stats available in emergencies?” Martin said. “We live in a world where there are over 10 billion connected devices, but none of that information is available to first responders."
Martin’s and Giacobbe’s goals reach far beyond Uber — they want to revolutionize public safety on a global level. "People might only call 911 once in their lifetime,” Giacobbe said. “You want that once-in-a-lifetime to be able to get them the care that they need.”
—Magazine writer Rachel Chen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.