Crisis at national emergency site Crisis.nl

Shut your doors and windows, switch off mechanical ventilation systems and turn on your radio or TV to the designated emergency channel. In the event of an emergency, our government has the important responsibility of informing and protecting its citizens. When a fire releases toxic substances into the atmosphere or the actions of malicious people even form a terrorist menace, following the instructions of the security services becomes paramount. For various reasons, more and more Dutch citizens prefer the internet to radio and television as a source of information. The internet not only makes information available more quickly and easily, but also makes it more specifically useful: by asking for the user’s postal code during an emergency, very specific instructions can be given, and in any language. The social aspect of the internet also helps to enhance the spreading of information, because in times of need, people can easily get information and help from friends, colleagues and neighbours using social media like Twitter, Hyves and Facebook.

How important a role social media can play in times of crisis became clear during the recent protests in the Arabic world, during which Facebook and Twitter were used extensively for communication with the outside world and with fellow insurgents. The usage of social media during the Arab Spring, also called ‘the first Facebook revolution’ by some, was very effective in terms of speed, accessibility and impact. With few exceptions, TV and radio systematically trailed behind that; some radio and TV programmes even spent their broadcast time reading out Twitter messages about the most recent state of affairs.

In order to meet Dutch citizens’ need for digital information in emergency situations, in 2006 the government introduced the website Crisis.nl. On that website, it says that “in the event of an emergency (…) Crisis.nl will be replaced with a page containing recent information regarding the emergency”, and in that way it’s supposed to be the digital alternative to the analogue radio and TV. A sensible decision on the government’s part, acknowledging and fulfilling an important need in society — provided the site is actually accessible when it’s deployed. But Crisis.nl failed already during its official opening: after 500,000 visitors (1 in 24 Dutch internet users paid it a visit) the website was overburdened. Furthermore, developments involving social media – which almost all Dutch internet users use – were ignored entirely: the project was already obsolete by the time it launched.

That was five years ago, and the internet has gone through major developments in recent years. Not Crisis.nl, though, which continued to struggle even after it was launched: in 2007 the emergency site was blown down when a major storm swept across the land, it was unavailable for hours during the recent fire in Moerdijk and it was no help either during the major fire in the port of Amsterdam last February. Exactly at the worst times, Crisis.nl let citizens down. And today, in the year 2011, the indispensable connections to social media are still missing altogether.

After this and other incidents with the site, the government promised improvement. Minister Opstelten disapproved of the site’s poor availability last January: “it can’t and shouldn’t be that way”, he said. “We’re going to do something about that.”

Then, nothing was heard about the project any more. In order to break the silence, the Dutch public broadcasting organisation NOS filed a freedom of information request, which yielded some interesting insights, as the NOS revealed last Monday on the news. Documents that the NOS acquired from that request indicate that the consistently failing Crisis.nl cost roughly half a million euros during the first three years. It’s not clear what expenses were made during the following years. The NOS also did not get an answer to the question whether the site has been tested with large numbers of visitors. This is curious, because in 2007, in response to an inquiry by former Socialist Party member of parliament Arda Gerkens, it was stated that stress tests were carried out regularly. But what might be the most remarkable finding the NOS made is that within the ministries concerned, there turns out to be major confusion regarding the project: involved parties report that many agreements are not recorded in writing but are made orally, and that it’s entirely unclear who is in charge of the project.

The crisis at Crisis.nl seems complete, now that documents not officially acquired by the NOS have revealed that no improvements to the website are going to be made, contrary to what Opstelten promised. Instead, the massively expensive website is thrown out without ever having functioned properly, and will be replaced with a brand new one at the start of next year, with all the expenses involved. Was the website really in such a dire state that it was impossible to improve? And will this be the next failing ICT project our government comes up with, or will they be bold and unexpectedly show their innovative side?

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