911, This App is the Emergency

You know what’s the worst part of being in a major accident? When there’s not enough people around to videotape it with their phones. As we all know, scars and broken bones heal faster when the footage of how they were acquired goes viral.

So thank goodness for Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who took steps to ensure that no tragedy will ever go without being captured by smartphones. This week, tech investors pumped $12.2 million into Citizen, an app designed to inform users of nearby emergencies and crimes.

Granted, the app could be slightly worse. It could have kept its original name, Vigilante, and all of the Death Wish-esque street violence it promised.

Here’s the thing about most emergencies: the less people on site, the better. I’m a former breaking news reporter. I’ve had front row seats to fires, floods, bank robberies and blizzards. I relied on the Breaking News Network, a service that emails out short transcriptions of police scanner communications, to report on those events.

So, yes, like so many other Silicon Valley innovations, Citizen provides a service that already exists. A key difference is that BNN is selective about who can use the service—they don’t publicly post subscription fees. You have to contact them and explain why you want you want the service.

I’m alarmed that Citizen wants to offer this service to the general public. Citizen encourages people to rush to scenes of accidents to gawk and videotape. That’s sure to make the jobs of emergency responders on the scene more difficult.

But beyond clogging up traffic for ambulances and fire engines, the Citizen app will likely reduce police transparency. Knowing there are active listeners to their police scanner channels, police officers will communicate through unmonitored lines, like cell phones. Those initial reports of accidents will lose the little detail they currently have.

People will make a shallow analysis of the data and make bad decisions. The initial communications from tragedies are often wrong. When there are smoke and noise, people panic and misread events. It takes time and investigation to get the truth. This app will inevitably lead to conspiracy theories. As On the Media’s indispensable guide to understanding breaking news observes so brilliantly, there’s almost never a second shooter; thanks to Citizen, people will almost certainly believe there always is one.

But, to be fair, the hundreds of hours of shaky camera phone footage is sure to be worth it.