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A Webware challenge: Make cell phones better lifelines

We need is a fail-safe service that will raise the alarm when a person goes missing.

Shortly after we got the crushing news of James Kim's death, I received an e-mail from a human resources person here at CNET. She wrote, "I would love to see a Web site dedicated to the safety of employees. Employees should be able to submit their travel routes and whereabouts. Whether it's on a road trip or visiting an apartment listed on Craigslist, providing information on where employees are and the related circumstances may be extremely helpful in the event that an emergency or dangerous situation occurs."

I forwarded this idea to several people who run mapping and life story start-ups, and I received heartfelt offers to participate in the creation of such a system, especially from Platial and OurStory. Today I've been talking with a few people here and the idea is evolving. I wanted to share the latest.

What we need is a fail-safe service that will raise the alarm when a person goes missing. There should be a Web service where you enter your itinerary and personal contact information. At each scheduled waypoint, the service calls your mobile phone or sends you a text message, simply asking, "Have you arrived safely at your destination?" If you have, you say so. If you don't answer, the system moves to the next step: It tries again, it tries alternate numbers (your hotel, the airline, the car rental company, and so on), and if you cannot be reached or located, it calls your designated contacts, who can determine whether to contact emergency personnel in the appropriate area. (If no one can be reached, it could escalate automatically.)

Such a system could be built into a mapping service or integrated into a trip-planning site, such as Orbitz or Travelocity. Or it could just be a stand-alone "flight plan" system for all of us.

The advantage is that it wouldn't needlessly bug family or friends until you were actually not responding to hails. (Of course it would need to be integrated with flight tracking so that it didn't assume you were missing when your flight was simply delayed.)

Disadvantages? Several. What if you're overseas and your phone doesn't work? What if you deviate from your plans and are fine, but you're out of touch when you said you'd be reachable? What of you're just moving through a poor cell phone coverage area? I don't claim that this idea is foolproof as written, but I do believe that something like it could help people who get in into trouble when traveling.

If anybody knows of such a system, or plans to build one, e-mail me or leave comments on this post. I'll report back if it gets traction.

(Actually finding a missing person or group is another challenge, but I am sure there are solutions, yet to be built, that could help there, too--including technological platforms that could more quickly and easily locate cell phones even when they are not in service areas, and policies and procedures to release that data in a timely manner.)

Cell phones are already lifelines. Let's make them better ones.