"When there's an emergency and officials need to tell people, sending a text message to a smart phone is just silly," says chief executive Ed English. But that's about the best that government agencies — or universities — can do today. It's one-way communication, limited to about 100 characters, with no links to more detailed information on the Web.
Elerts, says English, "can send information about shelters near you in the case of a hurricane, or evacuation route maps. But the most powerful thing we have going is crowd-sourcing. People can snap pictures of what they're seeing around them, and send them in to officials who may not know exactly what's happening where." (At right is a sample photo report of a bus crash that a citizen might send in.)
Elerts plans to launch its app for iPhone and Android next month; they'll be free. But, English says, "the ideal situation for us would be to be pre-loaded on brand new phones, and we've seen some interest from the wireless operators." The business model involves selling software that will manage outgoing alerts and incoming citizen reports to city, state, and federal government agencies, as well as schools and airlines. (Pricing isn't set yet, but English says it'll start at about $995 a year for smaller users.) Eventually, in later releases, the Elerts control panel will also help them monitor social media information related to an emergency. After all, English observes, "in Japan, the tweets coming out were really one of the major sources for real-time news, as that event unfolded."
Text messages, English acknowledges, work on just about every mobile phone. "But why not provide better service to smartphones?" he asks. That raises the worrisome possibility that in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, those who own pricey smartphones could have better survival odds. ("Survival of the richest?")
English says he started the company last July, and is now trying to raise venture capital for it. In 2005, he sold his start-up InterMute, which battled spyware, to Trend Micro in Japan.
Working alongside English at Elerts is Chris Russo, a deputy fire chief in Hull. English's brother Paul, a co-founder of the travel search site Kayak, serves on the company's board.
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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