By: Irfan Husain MS4, MPH candidate
With the advancements in social media and a surge in the prevalence of smartphones, we are now seeing live Twitter and Facebook updates and emergency-related applications being used in disaster response efforts.
Here, we evaluate the Red Cross Natural Disaster App series’ design and utility for the public in natural disasters.
Governmental agencies and NGOs are adapting and beginning to reach out to the public through mobile applications in order to provide direct, rapid, and life-saving alerts and updates.
The Red Cross was one of the first organizations to develop a series of comprehensive emergency apps that focused on all phases of a disaster – preparedness, response, and recovery. The Red Cross App Series covers a wide range of natural disasters including-Hurricane, Tornado, Earthquake, Wildfire, Shelter View, First Aid, and Team Red Cross. For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on the Hurricane and Shelter View apps. Both Hurricane and Shelter View apps are targeting potential and current disaster victims. The Tornado, Earthquake, and Wildfire apps follow a similar format to the Hurricane app.
Read our recent overview of how social media is being used in disaster response here
When first using the Hurricane App you are prompted to allow use of current location and push notification in order to receive real-time alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From the main screen (under Prepare) you are able to access a menu for basic recommendations and a checklist on what to do before, during, and after a hurricane, in addition to planning preparations.
At the top of the main screen, you have quick access to the toolkit button at the top-left and the I’m Safe button at the top-right.
The toolkit includes common emergency resources needed in an acute emergency setting: flashlight, strobe light, alarm, plan preparation, an option to switch to the Red Cross First Aid App, and another access point to the I’m Safe feature. If there was a power outage you might find yourself in need of a flashlight or if you were trying to signal a rescuer the alarm feature may be useful.
The First Aid icon allows the user to switch directly to the Red Cross First Aid app in order to address any acute health concerns, like bleeds, head injuries, or broken bones, while he/she waits for emergency responders.
Use of Social Media
One of the most unique features of the hurricane app is the I’m Safe tool, which can be accessed either through the toolkit or the main screen. It allows you to post a customized message for your entire social media network through Facebook and Twitter, in addition to SMS and Email – letting everyone know you are okay.
You can also target certain people, like immediate family, with customized messages by adding them to the recipient list. Yes, you could just post a message using the Facebook or Twitter app. However, this feature adds convenience, saves time, and uses less battery life.
Features to consider
In addition to sending an I’m Safe message to friends and family, it would be useful to add a GPS location and a group chat feature for immediate family to easily communicate and locate one another. Life360 provides a good model for the GPS tracking and group chatting amongst family members. Adhering to pre-existing evacuation plans are often thrown out the window when faced with the chaos that can ensue during a natural disaster.
Another feature to consider that would have benefits as well as risks is a help feature that would work in a similar fashion as the I’m Safe feature. The help feature could send a customized message as well as GPS location through Facebook, Twitter, SMS, and email. If the cellular network is busy and not allowing a victim to place a 911 distress call, the victim can rely on friends or family to place the distress call on their behalf or can rely on emergency responders to be actively monitoring and responding to social media distress messages. Drawbacks would include family and friends putting themselves in harm’s way.
The shelter view tab, from the main screen, switches the user to the Shelter View app and allows for quick access to a map locating the GPS coordinates of the closest shelters. By clicking on a specific shelter, you can view the location [including directions], capacity, current population, organization and disaster event. The shelter and map data is updated every 30 minutes. Just prior to Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross set up several shelters across the east coast and were urging the public to use the mobile app to locate the nearest shelter for assistance.
The Hurricanes tab, from the main screen, allows you to monitor alerts, view weather maps, and to track the progress of hurricanes.
The Test tab, from the main screen, allows you to assess your hurricane knowledge and preparedness skills. It’s a useful, informal test that helps engage the public.
- Hurricane App
- The app design is clean, clear, and easy to navigate
- I’m Safe and Toolkit features
- Easy access to Shelter View and First Aid apps
- Real-time alerts – push notification
- Shelter View App
- Ability to share shelter address
- No GPS location monitoring
- No regular SMS/push notifications for disaster-related news/updates (for those in potential disaster-area)
- The Hurricane and Shelter View apps provide a good starting point for disaster relief efforts and a paradigm for other relief organizations. There is still a lot of room for growth such as embedded features to allow users to get information back to the Red Cross or perhaps location sharing features for family and friends to track and perhaps find a loved one.
- Overall, these apps are full of useful information and have innovative features that make them great tools and highlight their potential for greater impact in the future.
Type of Device used to review app– iPhone 5
Version of App– 1.5.1 (Hurricane App) 2.0 (Shelter View App)
Rating: (1 to 5 stars): 5/5
1. User Interface: 5/5 – Easy to use and navigate
2. Multimedia usage: 5/5 – Uses images, weather maps, hurricane tracking and shelter GPS locator
3. Price: 5/5- Free
4. Real world applicability: 5/5 – This app provides potentially life-saving information and tools for the general public caught in a natural disaster