Mobile Technology Expanding Role in Disasters

A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation at the Brookings Institution – Mobile Technology’s Role in Natural Disasters and Public Safety Preparedness and Response. The platform for the conference was a new Issues in Technology Innovation White Paper “How Mobile Devices are Transforming Disaster Relief and Public Safety,” by Darrell M. West and Elizabeth Valentini.
A few of my findings:
Did you know that local 911 emergency systems cannot accept texts? That fact was revealed to the entire audience by Kristina Anderson, co-founder of LiveSafe, the leading mobile application for sharing and reporting public safety information. As a survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy in 2007, she told the audience about her fellow classmates who were texting 911 in an effort to be quiet in their classroom… with those texts literally going nowhere. Text 911 is something that is actively being worked on. Did you know that Dell funded the Social Media Digital Operations Center for Humanitarian Relief to the American Red Cross?  According to the press release the Center helps the American Red Cross

  • Source additional information from affected areas during emergencies to better serve those who need help;
  • Spot trends and better anticipate the public’s needs; and
  • Connect people with the resources they need, like food, water, shelter or even emotional support.

A few of the quotations that most impressed me:

  • “Mobile devices , tablets, and smart phones enable emergency providers and the general public to manage these challenges and mitigate public safety concerns.”
  • “Tweeting has the power to save lives –earthquake victims in Haiti were tweeting from underneath the rubble.”
  • “Mobile technology is revolutionizing disaster response.  If you are going to use social media on a daily basis, then you are going to use social media in a crisis.”
  • “Location accuracy is critical and indoor location accuracy is problematic.” This quotation referred to the ‘blue dot’ on handheld devices that pinpoints your location. While it may be easy to locate me and my blue dot in the middle of an open field, it is far from easy to locate me in a 30-floor building (one of my colleagues assures me though that some blue dots give off elevation signals).

Mobile technology will take on an increasingly important role in our ability to prepare for and respond to disasters. (I myself now have eight disaster apps and two weather apps on my phone). They key is to ensuring that our advances in technology are used as effectively as possible.  May we all be like the livestock herders in East Africa referenced in the white paper that use mobile phones for drought early warning purposes.

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