Smartphones sound off across the Twin Cities at 3:39 pm, accompanied by relentless vibration and a message:
- AMBER alert: check local media. LIC/242 GAU (MN) 2002 Red Kia Sportage.
Within minutes, Daisy Buenrostro calls 911 to report the car in her neighborhood, leading Minneapolis police to the abductor hiding 8-month-old Carlos Orozco in a basement nearby. Without Daisy’s alert, little Carlos might still be missing.
Another blaring smartphone beep tears into the stillness of a San Francisco home at 11:06 pm. A weary mother grabs it as her just-settled baby starts to cry. She peers at the impossibly bright screen:
- Boulevard, CA AMBER Alert. UPDATE: LIC/6WCU986 (CA) Blue Nissan Versa 4 door
Isn’t Boulevard across the state?! She gets up, angry she’ll be exhausted for her morning meeting. Days later, the missing teen is rescued in Idaho, reported by two horseback riders—who saw her on television, not through an alert.
Camp director Kathy Russotto and her counselors are busy with 29 young campers at the Sports World bubble dome in East Windsor, Conn. Russotto’s phone rattles with a tornado warning. Within seconds, heavy rain begins. She whistles for the kids and pushes them toward the next building, yelling, “Get under the tables!” The dome starts to move as a counselor grabs a straggling 5-year-old. As Russotto leaves last, she hears a terrifying noise behind her. The dome is gone. Without the alert, the children might be gone, too.
A young man relaxes in his Boston apartment at 11:00 pm when his phone shrieks:
- Severe alert, watch for flash flooding until 12:30 AM.
The entire area on alert for rain? He’s four floors up! He considers turning these things off.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is well aware of these actual success stories—and actual shortcomings. They’ve been tasked with helping to research and improve the situation. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) may have significant lifesaving potential. It’s estimated that 60%-70% of U.S. citizens own a smartphone, and the numbers keep growing. And even when people tune out radio and television, they’re glued to their smartphones. The WEA service may ultimately be the best method of reaching the most people. The impact can be life-changing—but not if people turn off the alerts.
Here’s why people opt out: Messages often aren’t relevant to those receiving them. For example, AMBER alerts can’t glean tips from people who have been sound asleep for hours, and fires don’t stop on a county’s border. Such glitches even discourage proper authorities from using the system more widely.
Seeking researchers to make the service more relevant, the DHS in 2012 called for proposals that would address how wireless technology can be improved to generate more informative emergency alerts and how mobile devices can better filter alerts based on an individual’s location and needs.
One of the researchers who submitted a proposal was Martin Griss, a software engineering expert and research scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus (CMU-SV) who has expertise in both mobile technology and its use in disaster management. Hearing nothing back from the DHS, Griss assumed he wasn’t selected. Perhaps it was just as well because he was planning to lessen his workload—to the delight of his wife, P’nina—so they could have more time to spend with their family and enjoy their retirement years.
Griss has had a busy career, including being CMU-SV director for four years—three longer than he says he intended. When he stepped down after the 2012-2013 academic year, he left behind a campus much different than the one he first encountered. From a solitary program that only served part-time students back then, CMU-SV today—part of the College of Engineering—now offers four graduate degrees, both full-time and part-time.
Easing into retirement for Griss was going according to plan until last November, when he opened an email. His 18-month proposal for nearly $1 million, written more than a year ago, had been accepted. Would it mean a change of plans for that reduced workload?
He’s always been ready to upend plans to embark on a challenge, going back to his South African youth. He grew up in Johannesburg, loving math, science, and art. As college rolled around, he picked a pragmatic major—electrical engineering. His selection of a school wasn’t quite as pragmatic. He chose Technion for its rigorous technical program. That part made sense. But it was located in Israel, and he only spoke limited, biblical Hebrew. No problem, he told the scholarship officer, he’d learn—and arriving for freshman year, he was well on the way. He soon witnessed a peculiar routine. The engineers were dismantling their dorm windows, laying them across tables to shine lights from underneath. Needing diagram copies and without a copy machine, they’d found another solution. Laying blueprints on the glass with sheets on top, they could trace copies. Painstaking and tedious work—and enough to convince Griss, with no hesitation, to switch to math and physics.
A few months later, he attended a student club with a friend. They spotted two girls. “You take the tall one, I’ll take the short one,” Griss whispered. The outgoing petite girl, P’nina, was interested in science and art, like him. The boys invited the girls out the next night and arrived at P’nina’s home to pick them up. “He has very clever eyes!” P’nina’s mother exclaimed of the young South African man who, amazingly, spoke to her in fluent Hebrew. P’nina agreed.
They married three years later. Following his graduation, Summa Cum Laude, he made another dramatic relocation, this time with P’nina—to the University of Illinois where he would pursue his PhD in high-energy particle physics. There, he embraced computing, a burgeoning modeling tool at the academic forefront. For his postdoctoral work, they moved again, to the California Institute of Technology. Griss found that programming in Fortran, the language of the day, was “clumsy” and began developing other languages for use in physics. His boss took notice. “We like what you’re doing with your research, Martin, but are you a physicist or a computer scientist? Because if you’re a physicist, you need to do more physics, or find another place to pursue computing.”
“That’s how I made the transition to computer science,” Griss says. “It kind of sucked me over to the dark side.” He joined the faculty at the University of Utah and “got my own computer science degree by teaching all the courses.” He also managed to squeeze in his artwork. The Grisses had come to Utah for a year but stayed nearly a decade.
In 1982, Griss took a yearlong sabbatical for a software engineering position in industry, at Hewlett Packard. Although he missed time with students, he so enjoyed product development that again, he scrapped his plans and stayed. “I was always a much more practical academic,” he says. “It’s exciting to make and build things.” After two decades at HP, Griss retired in 2002. P’nina threw him a series of parties to celebrate. He’d have more time with family and artwork, at the time intricate silver jewelry.
Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon was establishing a campus in Silicon Valley, offering an advanced degree in software engineering in the epicenter of high-tech business. The fledgling facility was located in NASA Research Park. The new director, aware of Griss’ reputation in the software engineering community, asked him to help out. Intrigued, Griss agreed, but for “only a few hours a week.” This turned to 10. Then 15. Then full-time again. Soon he was running the software engineering program. Then campus-wide education. Somehow, he still found time for his art—now metal sculpture, culled from salvaged scrap. The large creatures eventually adorned both home and campus. One 6-footer, affectionately dubbed The Beast, has become a permanent CMU-SV mascot that students playfully dress up for holidays.
When CMU-SV expanded its research effort in 2005, Griss, ever ready to break new ground, became director of research. Recognizing the potential of mobile communication, he established the Cylab Mobility Research Center in 2008, bringing in the first PhD students. The following year, they ran mobile computing workshops and received overwhelming interest in the topic of disaster response. Accordingly, Griss founded the Disaster Management Initiative, focused on ways technology could enable better response during critical situations, for example, disseminating information or locating survivors. Typically, Griss dove into the topic headlong, taking courses on ham radio operation, first aid, building evaluation, evacuation, and more. In the process, he became active in the ham radio community, and now holds an “extra class” license.
This hectic schedule, however, was anything but the retirement P’nina expected when he left HP, so Griss started planning another. Instead, in 2009, he was asked to become CMU-SV director and took another U-turn, albeit “only for a year.” By 2012, his experiences in mobile technology and disaster response spurred him to write his DHS proposal, suggesting improvements to the WEA service.
The WEA service is a collaborative effort of government and industry groups, developed in response to a 2006 Congressional act. It was conceived to complement the existing Emergency Alert System, which we’re all familiar with from radio and television–“beep … this is only a test.” There are three types of messages: imminent threat alerts (including weather), AMBER alerts, and presidential alerts, and the maximum 90-character messages are accompanied by intentionally strong, recognizable signals and vibrations. WEAs, unlike ordinary texts, are sent to every phone in a targeted region, but because they use different technology, they aren’t slowed by network congestion. All major wireless providers participate in the opt-out system in which all WEA-capable phones receive alerts by default unless owners reset their preferences.
Griss’ research proposal would initially identify the primary issues, like those confusing messages and broad targets. Next it would develop technology—via a prototype app—to solve the problems. He’s considered methods to filter the messages using phones themselves and improved cell-tower and broadcast technology. For example, users could input preferences directly or phones could determine them. A parent whose child attends school in the neighboring county could input that geographic preference and receive an alert regarding flooding there. Alternatively, the phone could recognize that the parent drives to that area every morning. In another example, if it was detected that a phone hadn’t been moved for hours, suggesting the owner was asleep, an AMBER alert either wouldn’t be sent to that phone or would be delayed for later alerting if still valid.
The proposal addressed the various DHS concerns, and subsequently Griss’ workload—with P’nina’s blessing—ramped up once again.
“We don’t want people opting out of the WEA program,” explains Denis Gusty, DHS’s program manager, Science & Technology. “We don’t know precisely how many people are doing so and don’t want to learn the hard way. I believe the work that Martin is doing will go a long way toward resolving these issues.”
Heading the research team with Griss are Bob Iannucci, director of CMU-SV, and Hakan Erdogmus, CMU-SV professor of electrical and computer engineering. In total, it’s a team of four faculty members, four doctoral students and six master’s degree students. It was easy to recruit researchers, says Erdogmus, because “students are crazy about him.” P’nina notes that throughout the years, some students have even named their children after him.
“Martin is super bright—one of those rare people with endless infectious energy and enthusiasm. It’s difficult to keep up with him—he’s even trying to get me involved in ham radio!” laughs Erdogmus, himself juggling teaching, curriculum development, and the project.
It’s a project the team hopes will produce technology that will be in widespread use within the next few years—so that everyone can evacuate to safety during extreme weather and that more AMBER alerts can lead to happy endings.
As for Griss’ retirement? “This is a very sore subject for me,” teases his wife. “I told him, ‘Next time, no more parties!’”
Griss claims he’ll cut back on his workload after this latest research ends. P’nina says nobody believes him.