Emergency Alerts on Phone: Nixle

An image from the App store with the official download site for Nixle. What are emergency alerts on the phone from Nixle? Carefully read the app reviews.
Emergency Alerts on Phone: Nixle

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am going with my Mom next week to a local class for emergency and disaster planning. I thought I would get ahead of it by downloading some apps for our phones. She lives in a dry area of Sonoma that was badly hit in two fires. I would like to get emergency alerts on my phone in case she does not have a strong signal out there and has to evacuate. Doria, W. Marin

Dear Doria: You are to be congratulated for being so proactive. It’s great to take that class with Mom and plan ahead for those emergency alerts on your phone. I hope these alerts will stay in the background and you won’t need to use them.

I ran your question by my local police and fire departments and they had a few suggestions for apps you could download. They recommend that you begin with your county’s official website, and within it, search for ” emergency preparedness.” There can be an information overload there so be prepared to scroll around until you get to the section to sign up for alerts. In your upcoming class they will probably remind you that it’s vital that you enter your credentials  now so that your name and number are active.

The Sonoma gov web site recommends a primary app, SoCoAlert, and also a secondary one called Nixle. By the way,  all counties rely on more than the Internet or apps  for notifications. There’s the old fashioned, but effective,  siren or bull horn. There are also emergency broadcast radio stations to tune into.  These are not old fashioned at all. You need them in case the cell towers are knocked out and you can’t use your phone. Which reminds me, make sure your Mom’s backup phone is a landline, not a VOIP phone.

NixLE the App:

Public agencies, especially fire departments, are now recommending the Nixle app for community wide notifications and messaging. But full disclosure: DearSmartphone did not download the app after she learned so much from reading the reviews.

The app goes under the names Nixle and Everbridge. The names are interchanged on occasion. Nexbridge (!), has the advantage that you can be tracked in two or more zip codes- say where you live, and your Mom’s place. They also said they do not sell your data, that’s a plus.

That said, the reviews for this app, on a five point scale, were but ‘2.1’. Equally offsetting was the positioning of Everbridge on the App store. As you can see from the image, the app store classified it as a ‘lifetsyle’ download and sandwiched it between a Beauty App for hair color, and an Everbridge spin-off for corporate messaging.

Here’s the description on the app page: “ Nixle works in partnership with thousands of public safety agencies. Everbridge offers the most trust information available at a neighborhood level to keep residents informed- all delivery directly to your mobile device. Messages range from emergencies and crime advisories to important announcements, reminders, and community updates.”

State of Emergency:

Reading further, I learned that important announcements can include work place violence, active shooters, terrorism, IT and power outages, environmental discharges, critical equipment failures, medical emergencies, and social media attacks. 

In the app reviews, users  said that they had difficulty turning off the notifications for these myriad alerts.Some  got pinged during the night for emergencies that were hundreds of miles away. Others complained that when there was a need, specifically a fire warning, they did not get pinged at all. The app stayed tragically silent but the ‘gov’ one worked. They are probably pulling down information from the same central dispatch.

A Battery of concern:

 A further concern users expressed, my biggest worry for your Mom, is that the app stays open with  the GPS turned on, so that it sends out those real time notifications. That might drain the battery and defeat the emergency planning. If you rely on your phone for directions when you evacuate and also expect calls and messages, it’s essential that you have a device that is fully charged. It’s a good time to add an auxiliary battery extender, fully charged, to the emergency planning kit. 

Perhaps the class you attend will offer a different take on the Nixle app, and a link specifically for fire conditions.  if so, please update me. Just keep in mind that if you do choose to download the app,  then show the controls to your Mom so that she understands them and does not get confused.

Apps in War

A quote from Leon Trotsky, plus a tiny photo of him. The quote says, "You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you."
Old Quote- New Meaning: Apps in War

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My family lives in France and they are using apps to follow what’s happening with our relatives in Ukraine. I live here and am honestly not familiar with using apps in wartime. I have been trying to keep up with the invasion on news and Twitter but am I missing sites? I did give up using TikTok- it just seemed contrived at this time.  Mikhail, San Francisco

Dear Mikhail: It’s good you gave up on TikTok. Social media has wormed its way into apps on warfare and there have been concerns that the GPS on TikTok could compromise military operations. In fact, the Indian government banned it completely. I hope that going forward your family, both in Ukraine and in France will be safe yet able to get timely and reliable updates from each other.

Telegram:

Your question got me curious about other apps in war that might be used. Today’s it called “cyber warfare” and there were some interesting leads. 

The app you mention for following news about the war in Ukraine is called Telegram. NPR had a descriptive background story. Two Russian brothers, the Durovs, set it up in 2014 as a way to circumvent the Kremlin and let fellow Russians learn what was happening in their country. Today, Telegram operates from Dubai and has about 30 employees. It has become, quotes NPR, the preferred news source for Ukrainians and Russians who use smartphones to track what is happening. There are private channels (like Slack)  for communications with family members or friends, and public ones, for daily videos and updates.  Sadly, there are allegations that the site is not secure and is being used for propaganda purposes. So, if you choose to use Telegram, keep that caveat in mind.

Premise Data & MAPPING:

Assuming your relatives in Ukraine have a smartphone or know someone who does, they might have downloaded a Google app called Air Raid Alerts. It is a supplement to the country’s existing air raid alert system and accesses the same public channel. (Here in the U.S., a similar app is used to announce an impending tsunami or provide earthquake warnings.)

But, apps for war are also being used behind the scenes by Russian-Ukraine military operations. The Wall St. Journal cites a mobile app maker called Premise Data Corp. that had to shut down its operations there. It paid smartphone users to do remote observational tasks such as photography. Bluetooth and wireless sensors on their phones might have also been accessed  to map out cell networks and WiFi access points. The Kyiv government accused Premise of being a tool that Russian forces used to locate Ukrainian targets. So, quote “out of an abundance of caution they suspended operations.”  A few weeks later (3/1)  Google Maps began removing user-submitted locations because they were allegedly being used to target airstrikes. Again, Google officials state they removed the app for the same reasons, “out of an abundance of caution.”

Reface:

When you look at smartphones in war it is a recent development that soldiers and civilians alike can send images from day to day operations. Wired magazine says this began with the Iraqi war and dates it to 2016, the battle for Mosul.  This visual documentation has become a democratic way of conducting a war but is uncharted territory in terms of what it foments. Do these real-time images help civilians and soldiers process the horror of war and express their emotional angst or do they stir up factions and seed new schisms?

In Ukraine the app makers have not left this opportunity pass them by. Now, in an advanced country of cyber-coders, a well-acclaimed Ukrainian video game producer called Reface has gotten into the news business. Their popular software features let users swap out faces on video. They now compile daily video feeds of the war based on clips and images circulating on social media. They also add the face of Volodymyr Zelensky to the heroic moments. Say the founders of Reface: he is today’s Jack Sparrow, Hulk and Iron Man. 

Stay Well:

So, going back to your original question, I hope your family weathers this OK and you can find ways to stay in touch and support them. The media can help you find legitimate, reliable places to give donations and aid. But, in a recent post, I noted how hard it is to know where to get news these days. We are increasingly pulled into the war machinery. As the apocalyptic quote from Leon Trostkey quote states, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  Through phones and social media, the citizen journalist or soldier shares stories (often personal) and photos (often altered). Inadvertently, these same phones share crowd sourced data, sensors, and the triangulation of location.

News Makes Me Anxious

A picture of a smartphone and a set of hands handcuffed to the phone with the auxillary phone cord.
News Makes Me Anxious: Take a Digital Sabbath?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I feel  bad-tempered these days and my ex says it’s because I am watching so much news on my phone. It’s true that my phone is my main source. There is a lot happening out there and I want to stay informed. Maybe the news makes me anxious and worried? I want to keep up but not feel so stressed about our future. Suzanne, Sausalito

Dear Suzanne: The news has indeed been grim these past few weeks. It’s doubtful that anyone can view it and come away feeling positive about the social order. So lighten up and do not be so hard on yourself.  But does the news make people anxious? If so, you are not alone. Nearly half of adults say that they get primary news on social media and a third on Facebook.

If you step back and ask what is “broadcast news”  it was only one- hour long 40 years ago. Then, in 1980 Turner’s Cable New Network (CNN) launched 24 hour news and it changed the business model. A similar innovation around 2012, was the round-the-clock news feed that you participate in using your phone, say on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. Social media sites beckon you in if you are engaged, informed or just passionate about a topic.  However, as you engage, you will never be sure if others there are legitimate, or if they have a special interest lurking behind the posts. Even worse, they could be bots fabricating elements of the story or pictures. 

So, it may be that your anxiousness – or bad temper as you put it- comes from the hard work it takes to engage with social news media and keep it straight. When you go online to these news sites you process a large volume of information, but you process it out of context, in pieces, and without full trust in the sources. When you think about it that way, it’s not about you. Following the news on social media is tricky and cognitively taxing.  This is not the only reason that the news can make you anxious, but I think this one gets downplayed.

I would recommend that you take a Digital Sabbath. A Digital Sabbath is not religious- it’s a designated break from using your phone, in this case for news watching. You begin with just one day a week. You are likely to find that you are not missing anything during this 24 hour break. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to incorporate  more  time-offs into your routine. 

By the way, there are a number of studies in mental health that link depression and anxiety to news watching. Longitudinal studies  done after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 paint a grim picture. The academic researchers found that viewers who saw the devastating pictures over and over again were more likely to be anxious and have prolonged stress going forward. If you search, you will find many studies that vet a relationship between anxiety and news viewing.  A noteworthy branch is now called “climate anxiety.” Since 2011 psychologists have observed a relationship between indirect exposure to climate stories transmitted by the media and feelings of worry, despair, and guilt. 

That said, researchers still do not know, and they may never, whether people who are more anxious and stressed turn to media, or if this association is fueled by media viewing.  That’s key!


Since both mental health research and your own experience point to the out-sized role of social media I offer some final advice. If you want to keep up with the news but become less emotionally involved in it then subscribe to a daily newspaper. There is compelling evidence (from the Covid era) that the written stories and pictures are less involving, so readers stay more emotionally distant. Research finds no significant association between newspaper coverage of natural disasters, wars, and trauma and psychological outcomes such as depression, stress, or anxiety. Newspapers should equip you to take in the daily complement of worldwide events without getting irritable, crying, or sad.