The importance of Twitter during an emergency

During an emergency, staying connected and informed is vital for the safety of you and your family.  While radio and television remain some of the best ways to learn what is happening during times of emergency, I strongly recommend one more vital tool to keep you informed: Twitter.

I have talked about this before, where I believe everyone should be on Twitter, and that is because it is one of the easiest methods to stay in touch and connected during an emergency.  Here is why:

Radio and television is great to keep you informed as to what is going on, but television relies on the power being on.  When there is a power outage, your TV probably won’t be very helpful.  Both radio and TV also have the problem of not being able to necessarily provide you with the exact information you need for your area at the time you need it.  Since broadcasts are live, and often need to cover a larger geographic area, which also may be hit, waiting for information on your specific neighbourhood may be hard to find.  (Have you ever watched the results from an election and wondered when they were going to get to your riding, only to look away for a moment and find it has passed?! same idea)

The value with Twitter is it can help condense information you need into a quick bite of information that is relevant to your immediate needs.  Let’s take an example of a power outage.  Not too long ago, my neighbourhood had a power outage during a major cold snap.  While it wasn’t a big emergency, local media was reporting on the cold and some cases of power going out, but nothing specific about my area.  By searching on Twitter for the power utility in my region, I was able to see from their Twitter feed they were dealing with a number of outages at the time.  I was then able to Tweet to them that my neighbourhood was affected, and not long later I saw a tweet that they were aware of the outage and had a crew looking into it.  In a subsequent tweet, the explained there was a blown transformer and the crew gave an ETA on when they expected it to be fixed.

This is information that I would not have found on local news media because it was such a small area, but using twitter, I was not only able to learn about the issues, I was able to directly let those know that this area needed assistance.

So what is the best way to use Twitter during an emergency?  First is preparation before the emergency hits.  If you don’t already have one, sign up for a Twitter account.  It’s free and takes very little time.  Then download the app on your smartphone and sign in.  (More on this later)

Once you have a twitter account, start searching for some accounts to follow.  Maybe you want to use Twitter to follow some celebrities, or look for inspirational quotes, but here is what you need to make Twitter work for you in an emergency.  Look for the following accounts and start following them:

-The official account of the City or Town you live in

-The official account of the region or County you live in

-Trusted local, regional and national news accounts (TV, Newspaper, Radio, etc.)

-Local power authority

-Local or regional police and fire services

-Weather service official accounts

-Emergency Management or Coordination offices accounts

You will notice I use the work OFFICIAL a lot in that list.  The reason is with Twitter, it’s so easy to see something and retweet it. If you come across some information you want to reshare, you need to be sure it is accurate information.  Too often hoaxes, wrong information or misinformation is sent out that could be harmful if followed.  Sometimes it’s by accident, other times it’s on purpose.  If you follow official accounts you stand the best chance of getting the right information when you need it.

Now that you have followed those accounts, make a list.  Twitter allows you to make lists of specific topics and add those accounts to that list.  By viewing the list in Twitter you can have a condensed list of all the tweets that should be related to the situation.  There shouldn’t be any additional chatter from other accounts you follow so there is no need to scroll through irrelevant stuff to find the information you need.

Using #Hashtags is another great way to find out what is going on during an emergency.  A Hashtag is a tag which you use to find other tweets on the same topic. As people write out a tweet, they will include the # symbol, followed by a short message related to the topic. When you search for the hashtag, you will see all the tweets using the same hashtag.  As you follow your trusted sources, watch to see what hashtags they use in their tweets.  In my area, during any weather related emergency, the common hashtag is #ONSTORM .  By searching for this hashtag, I can see what everyone is talking about related to this topic.  Hashtags are where you will get a lot of information, but just remember, this is where the false information can also be seen, so make sure to take it with a grain of salt, unless it comes from one of your trusted sources.  You can monitor the conversation, or jump in and share what you are seeing or what is happening in your area.

Remember, Twitter isn’t a one way conversation.  While it’s great for keeping you informed during an emergency, it is also vital to keep your friends and loved ones apprised of your situation.  Instead of everyone calling you to ask if you are doing okay, you can send out a tweet with an update on how you are doing.  It will help keep the phone lines free in case they are needed.

So, why did I insist you install Twitter on your smartphone?  Your TV may go out during an emergency, and not everyone has a radio with them all the time (Although there should be one pretty close by that takes batteries) but even with a power out, your smartphone should still work.  If your home Internet goes down, your smartphone should be able to connect to a cell tower. Chances are your smartphone is with you most of the time, so it’s your best lifeline during an emergency.

If you are finding the phone network is getting congested and phone calls are having trouble connecting, or if the data network is running slow, you can also make Twitter updates by SMS, making Twitter one of the most versatile forms of communicating information.

Twitter (and other social media networks) have matured enough that they should be considered an important part of any emergency preparedness plan.  They keep you informed and connected, which in an emergency could save your life.

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Programming VoIP Phones for Asterisk – A quick Tutorial

I put together a How to video detailing how to program SIP compliant phones for an Asterisk based VoIP Phone System.

In this demonstration, I am using PBX in a Flash with IncrediblePBX as my server.  It uses FreePBX as the web interface on top of Asterisk, making it much more user friendly than the command line or via text.  With a test extension already set up, I use a Cisco SPA504 phone for demonstration.  Any SIP compliant phone will work with Asterisk, but I have always found the Cisco SPA series of phones to be easy to set up and visually quite nice sitting on a table.  I have used Snom, Grandstream and Polycom before with success, and have heard a lot of good things from Digium and Aastra phones.  If you are looking to test out a system before deploying it full on, I actually recommend picking up a simple Analog telephone adapter, such as the SPA112.  It has 2 ports for analog phones, and 2 SIP registrations, so its great for doing initial testing.

While the system I am using in the video is PBX in a Flash, the latest version from the IncrediblePBX team uses Elastix as its interface.  I have an instructional video here on how to set it up, and do recommend giving it a try.

If you like these videos, please Like and Share them with your friends, Circles and Tweeps!  Don’t be shy about leaving me a note in the comments section on YouTube.  I’d like to hear what you think so I can bring you more videos to help you stay connected!

Phone system solutions on a budget: Setting up your own VoIP system

For many years, I have talked about the virtues of Voice over Internet phone systems for small businesses, and temporary offices, and how they can provide you with an inexpensive alternative to traditional phone lines.  Many of my colleagues and clients have come to use them and enjoy how well they work.  For just the price of a low end desktop computer (New or used, it doesn’t matter) and some VoIP enabled phones, you can have all the equipment you need to be up and running.

As an example of how easy it is to get started with a VoIP based PBX, check out my How to video on installing Elastix 2.5 and IncrediblePBX11 on a computer.  All the software is free for download, and comes pre compiled and ready to go. You only need to configure it for your specific details.

Click here for my Video on Installing Elastix 2.5 and IncrediblePBX 11

The above video goes through the process of installing the system on your computer.  Once it’s installed, you need to configure it. The next video in my series talks about setting up trunks on the system.  Trunks are like phone lines.  A trunk can allow 1 line in and out, or it can have many, all depending on what you have subscribed to with your VoIP provider.

This video details the process to setup a trunk in Elastix 2.5

For those who have trouble reading the text I’m entering into my screen, here is a recap.  Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all right now, it may look intimidating, but it really isn’t too bad.  This is just example text, but you will need some information similar to this from your VoIP provider.

Outgoing Settings

Trunk Name: Example-Outgoing

PEER Details:
username=login1
type=peer
secret=ThisIsMyPassword
rfc2833compensate=yes
relaxdtmf=yes
progressinband=no
insecure=very
host=xxx.xxx.xxx.xx
dtmfmode=rfc2833
disallow=all
context=from-pstn
allow=ulaw

Incoming Settings

USER Context: Example-Incoming

USER Details:
username=login1
type=peer
secret=ThisIsMyPassword
rfc2833compensate=yes
relaxdtmf=yes
progressinband=no
insecure=very
host=xxx.xxx.xxx.xx
dtmfmode=rfc2833
disallow=all
context=from-pstn
allow=ulaw

Registration String:
login1:ThisIsMyPassword@xxx.xxx.xxx.xx/login1

Why Small Businesses should consider Bitcoins for payment

Bitcoins have been making their way into the mainstream media recently, and I’m sure many have been wondering what is it all

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about?

First, a Bitcoin is a form of digitally encrypted currency (or a commodity, depending on how you

look at it) that allows individuals to make secure payments over the Internet or in person for almost no cost.  There is no central organization that runs Bitcoin. Instead, it runs on a peer-to-peer network technology where everyone who uses it contributes in one way or another to the management of the system.  There are many good resources online to learn more about the technical aspects of how it works, but for those who want an easy to understand version of how the system works, I recommend this video:

Why should my business accept Bitcoins when I already take Credit and Debit cards?

Businesses need to offer as many choices as possible to make the process of buying your products and services as easy as possible.  Unfortunately, it costs money in order to accept money.  If you are not simply doing cash transactions, then you need to pay for banking fees, a Point of Sale system and the monthly fees that come associated with it, a percentage of all payment received for credit card transactions (usually around 3% but can vary) as well as the merchant account you need.  All in all, accepting payment by credit card can be quite expensive and eat into your profit margins.  Bitcoin transactions can be exchanged for very little costs.  In order to process transactions through the Bitcoin network, computers have to handle the transaction and record it in the general leger of all Bitcoin transactions.  That takes time, usually an hour.  If you pay a small fraction more, you can have your transaction sped up.  The cost of accepting Bitcoins is probably around 1% or less of a total transaction value.

As well as them being cheaper to accept than traditional payment forms, they are easier and safer for electronic fund transfer.  When you buy something online with your credit card, you are providing your card number, expiry date, and the security code to the business.  You can be sure they do their best to keep your information safe, however as we have heard about in the news recently, large data breaches in major retailers have led to the loss of millions of individuals credit card information.  With those numbers, criminals can make purchases on your account.  With Bitcoin however, a transaction can only be done between the two parties buying and selling.  Once a Bitcoin transaction occurs, it can not be undone, and the information you provide for the payment can not be stolen and used to make other purchases.  This benefits the consumer since there is little risk of fraudulent activity after your transaction.

From a business perspective, accepting the payment means secured funds.  Since a transaction can not be tampered with, the funds you receive are yours and there is virtually no risk of being clawed back.  It is about as close to having cash in hand as you can get in an online world.

Who uses Bitcoins?

There is a bit of a “What comes first?” scenario with Bitcoins.  You want to spend your Bitcoins on things, but not many places accept them, and businesses don’t think they need to accept them since no one has them.  As described above, the time and costs involved in accepting Bitcoins is fairly small, so it makes it worth it to investigate it.  Consumers are starting to come more on board with the idea and are wanting to use their existing Bitcoins.  It will create a snowball effect as more businesses begin accepting them, more people will start using them.

Recently, Overstock.com in the US announced they would begin accepting them as a form of payment, and as of the time of this writing, TigerDirect.com announced they were going to begin accepting them as payment for products online.  These are just 2 of the many businesses that are beginning to offer them as an option alongside their traditional payment methods.

I hear the cost of Bitcoins changes rapidly.  What if I make a trade for Bitcoins and then the price drops?

Just like any currency or commodity, the value for Bitcoins has been fluctuating recently. This high degree of volatility may make some businesses worried about jumping on the bandwagon.  For those that don’t want to play around with the risk of fluctuating worth of Bitcoins, there are merchant solutions that will handle the Bitcoin sale for you and immediately convert your Bitcoins into traditional currency.  BitPay allows you to integrate their merchant services into payment process.  You can then offer payment by Bitcoin on your website and have the funds converted into your home currency.  They will then do daily deposits into your bank account with the value of your sales.  Since you are getting the transaction value at that current price, you do not need to worry about how much the price for a Bitcoin fluctuates.  Your money is safe, and in your traditional bank account.

I thought Bitcoins were associated with a lot of criminal activity?

Recent news has been about the FBI shutting down a website that offered illegal products and services in exchange for Bitcoins.  The semi anonymous nature of Bitcoins has attracted some criminal activity online. In actual fact, Bitcoins do leave a trace online and are searchable.  Although everyone has a unique and anonymous address given to them, all transactions from an address are part of the worldwide leger of transactions.  This makes Bitcoins more of a security risk to criminals than traditional cash would.  Therefore, Bitcoins should be less of an interest to criminals than cold, hard cash.

Are there any downsides to Bitcoin?

As with any option, there are always pros and cons.  If you want to get involved with Bitcoins, there are a few things to consider.  As mentioned previously, Bitcoins value fluctuates quite a bit.  For the most part it is moving up, however if you are going to hold on to Bitcoins for a while, keep in mind that it can change in value compared to other traditional (fiat) currencies.

Right now, acquiring Bitcoins is a bit of a challenge.  You need to find someone in person to trade with, or set up an account with an exchange to convert.  It is getting easier to buy them now with Bitcoin ATMs starting to spring up all over the world.  While still  few and far between, they are making headway.

Making sure you manage your Bitcoins also requires a bit of thought.  Many online wallets are available, but it is still best to keep them stored on a computer for security.  Just remember if you do store them on a local hard drive, don’t throw it in the garbage without backing it up!

I am interested, but don’t know where to start

There are many great places to start investigating how to get involved.  The website www.bitcoin.org is a great place to get information on how to get started.  There are a number of other resources online such as online wallets, exchanges, and Bitcoin businesses that are popping up that will help you get set up.  Many major cities are also building up communities of Bitcoin enthusiasts who are more than willing to share their knowledge.

If you are a small business and want some guidance on where to look for information on Bitcoins, feel free to contact me by Twitter @Stealth2377 or fill out the contact information below.

If you enjoyed this post, found it informative and useful, please share it with your friends on Social Media, and consider making a donation to help keep this blog funded.

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Tech Tip: backup or sync your password database

#TechTip store your password manager program on 2 USB drives. 1 to carry with you and 1 for backup, or sync to the cloud securely

We conclude the weeks blog about passwords with a post about how to manage those password database programs.

We have already covered why you need multiple passwords and how to manage the sheer number of them.  So now we have a simple tip that you really must follow: back up your password database!

With so many passwords to keep track of you need to keep them all written down somewhere and we recommend a password manager.  But if you only have that program on one computer, what happens if your computer crashes or is lost?  I usually recommend keeping your password manager on a USB drive so that you can move it between computers and its always with you.  But make sure if your database program is on a USB drive you have it backed up on a spare drive somewhere else.  Should you lose your drive you can still access all your sites.

The same can be said about syncing up your password database online.  If your manager automatically syncs online as with LastPass, or if you keep the file on a Drop box or Google Drive, you will have access to it anywhere and anytime. 

Password security may seem like a chore for those who don’t regularly make updates to it, bit a few steps now can save you a lot of trouble in the future.