Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mobile Apps in Disaster

Have you ever built an Avatar? That may exclude too many of you, so how about something more relatable--have you ever built a survey using SurveyMonkey? You know, where you're given a predetermined set of options to create a survey that you can customize to your hearts content?

Now, apply that 'drag and drop' idea to app creation for Droid phones. Have you done that? Good. Now read this article because the folks at MIT have done just that and they're excited about how it could impact early recovery in disaster response.

The operating table inside the app inventor
Remember when I posted about Disaster Response in the Digital Age? I talked about the potential issues the mass proliferation of web applications and digital data platforms could have on disaster response. Well I would like to lump this quantum leap forward in app creation in with that post. It's not because I'm a luddite, far from it--I'm hip, I tweet, I'm a redditor, a member of the of blogosphere, so why then am I so against the DIY app-building that this MIT tool enables?

First off, I shouldn't say that I'm "against," it, because I believe there's value in tools of this nature and that the smartphone will play a key role in the future of early recovery in disaster response. I guess I would rather issue, or re-issue a strong word of caution, because I foresee this tool creating quite a stir.

You know the old adage: too many cooks in the kitchen? Well what happens when, in our quest for the next version, the next update, the next _____, we create tools that lets everyone become a cook? What you get is a lot of food, but how good is the food, and more importantly, how many terrible dishes will you have to get through before you find one that's delicious?

When you create open source tools the goal is to get that tool into as many hands as possible, the concern, in this case is that you run the risk of too many people making crap and using it. Proponents say that this access spurs innovation and that only those who have a desire to create something will. While this may be true, I urge you to look at the number of tumblr's, blogs, and other inane things (this blog) that exist simply because the tools to create them were readily available and tell me if on the whole we're spurring innovation.

If google maps hadn't created an open source aspect to their mapping tool, we wouldn't have the collaborative work order system that is being used to aid in the coordination of nonprofit organizations active in early recovery -- so I understand and appreciate the upside. However, how many Facebook pages pop up after disasters? How many local groups spring into action without having a clear idea of what they're doing? When tools are created without addressing how they're meant to fit within the existing landscape of disaster response, they're not working towards addressing the challenges of creating more resilient communities, if anything, they're working to undermine the plans, procedures, and protocols that have been put in place by emergency management professionals.

I'm not advocating that we discount or attempt to limit the power of motivated individuals and groups who play a much needed role in early recovery activities, quite the opposite. I'm one of the biggest advocates for increasing their involvement, I just want to make sure that when greater access to the building blocks that empower people to play a greater role within early recovery is enabled, that we do so with an eye towards the bigger picture. Technology without context will not contribute to situational awareness, it will merely give license to people to put themselves into potentially dangerous situations trying to capture images and video to add to this mobile app data tapestry.

Creating tools that empower is a step in the right direction; however, I would suggest that when this tool is launched, an educational module be incorporated that prepares individuals and groups for what happens after the emergency phase ends. By providing that context and the role that individuals can play by creating and using their apps, we're creating a shared understanding and a common goal, two key elements in creating community resilience and empowering individuals to take role in their communities recovery.


  1. It is very interesting to me that when I started in emergency management a mere ten years ago, there was very little in the way of technology or data manipulation in the field of disaster response. Now, during emergency incidents, data management typically is the bulk of what I do. Our agency maintains a database of city residents with functional needs in order to prioritize emergency response. I recently returned from our systems developer where we briefly discussed trying to fit one of our databases that was originally developed for CERTs into an app that VOADs can connect to during an incident. The mapping functions that are available make these tools very useful; however, there are also a lot of issues regarding information security/privacy, as well as funding streams for these apps to be maintained and updated.

  2. You said it MidnightMama, the increase of data management in disaster response has significantly changed how we do our jobs and the issues that you mention (privacy & security) are going to continue to be an issue until we have a unified approach to finding a solution.

  3. The work order management software serves as a medium between your information center and workforce ensuring that all tasks are completed in an efficient and smooth manner.