Using Mobile Apps in Disasters

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Mobile apps are becoming vital resources during disasters--and for good reason. "People are stressed out, scared and seeking information," said Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross. Her organization, the most recognizable name in disaster relief, monitored more than 100,000 mentions of Hurricane Isaac on social media: a number that helps show how mainstream it has become for people to use mobile devices during a natural catastrophe.

According to a recent Red Cross survey, 55% of people now rely on online news for emergency information, while 39% say they would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe. And of those who use social media during disasters, 76% are likely to seek information about weather conditions or warnings, 62% would search for damage caused by the event, and 56% would try to find the status of loved ones.

Of course, social media and online news are not always mobile. Some of these respondents are still using tethered devices. None other than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, however, has said that his company's future resides in the mobile realm, and trends suggest that demand will only rise for mobile disaster information.

In May, smartphone usage in the United States officially passed that of "dumbphones," according to Nielson, with the average smartphone user now spending 39 minutes per day using apps. The number of apps downloaded on Apple's iPhones and Google Android devices also grew 28% in 2012 compared to 2011.

So while only 20% of respondents to the Red Cross survey have so far used a mobile app to get information about an emergency, it seems inevitable that this number will continue to grow. For government agencies, nonprofit organizations and companies with expertise in disaster preparedness, now appears to be the time to invest in creating apps that will help people stay safe.

The Red Cross has already turned its eyes to mobile. In addition to a First Aid App for "everyday emergencies," it offers a specialized Hurricane App, Earthquake App and Shelter Finder App. The hurricane app includes an "active storm tracker," which sends users notifications about their local area, and "challenges," which test users' knowledge about hurricane preparedness and history. The earthquake version offers advice on how to prepare before a seismic event ("know which hotels along your evacuation route will accept you and your pets"), what to do during the shaking ("if you are in bed, stay there, curl up"), and what to consider in the hours ahead ("consider all water from wells ... to be unsafe until tested"). Each also has a utility toolbox that can turn a phone into a flashlight, blinking strobe light or alarm to alert rescuers. …