New media and Virginia Tech

The role new media technology has to play in averting tragedies like Virginia Tech and in the afterm

When the words “Virginia Tech” come to mind, the first thing most people think of is tragedy and a year on from the 16 April shootings it is especially remembered.

In the shock immediately following the shootings, people were baffled as to how Cho Seung-Hui could have carried out his bloody spree over so many hours.

People wanted someone to blame and most came to the same conclusion: the university's communication to students was just not good enough.

The Virginia Tech experience clarified the need for new media technology that could have been used to notify students faster about the potential threat. Americans said the same thing after 9-11. After 9-11 many New Yorkers wanted a system that would contact people in affected areas en masse to let them know the situation. Companies like Send Word Now and Intelligent Wireless Solutions developed the capacity to alert people in businesses, universities or neighbourhoods who are signed up for the service using text messages, phone calls, messages to computer desktops, and emails. They also use the more traditional methods of radio announcements, loudspeakers and television announcements.

Before Virginia Tech few American universities had any sort of emergency alert system, but in the wake of the shootings, these systems are becoming more prevalent.

According to a recent survey only five per cent of universities said they used mobile phones in their emergency response before Virginia Tech but now more than 75% of the survey respondents said mobile phones are included.

There is also legislation under discussion that would require U.S. universities to issue “warnings in 30 minutes or less after an emergency”. While thankfully there has been no tragedy on the same scale in British university campuses, maybe the administrators should consider taking extra precautions and implementing these sorts of systems.

The UK has been slower moving in developing this type of new media emergency communications, even after the events of 7/7, but there are some steps in the right direction. CommunitySafe provides information in emergencies through pagers, SMS, phone calls, emails, and PDAs and even provides maps outlining the areas affected by the event.

On 7/7 “subscribers were notified six hours before the national press reported the incident”, the company claims. Another organisation involved in emergency messaging is Vocal, which has existed since 1998 but just started its emergency communications warnandinform system recently. Send Word Now has also implemented a global SMS plan to expand its communication services further.

While there is still fear that, in an actual disaster, systems may not function properly, it is still important to try to prepare for these situations, using the new media available. The emergency response systems should be commended for their help to the community and for exploring emergency technology.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.