In a Crisis? There’s an App for that.

GPS navigation solution running on a smartphon...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The recent article: Portland CivicApps Initiative: Crowd Sourcing for Crisis Management by Jeremy Waen describes how the Portland government is engaging the “technologically savvy creative class” in order to develop new tools for emergency management through an App-contest. For purposes of background info, these contest, such as Code for America and one of the original crowdsourcing projects, Apps for Democracy, are designed to “put the data in the hands of our citizens” and  tap into the wealth of knowledge, innovation and creativity that exists within the community in order to create products that make that data more useful for citizens, visitors as well as public employees.

The reward structure is based on small cash prizes and people’s sense of contributing to their community. But as Jeremy explains, another motivation is simply ability to parlay the experience into private sector jobs. These contests are quite inexpensive for the government involved, especially when compared to what it would cost to develop the apps through traditional grant or contractor processes: $20,000.00 versus $100,000+.

One of the winning Apps that came out of the Portand project was pictured above. From their website:

“ allows mobile users to send an emergency GPS beacon to a real-time map. Crisis responders can view all of the help requests on the webpage, along with hospitals and fire stations, real-time 911 calls related to natural disasters.”

According to Jeremy Waen’s article: “Features of this platform include: emergency GPS beaconing, multi-platform access and user subscriptions (SMS, AIM, Jabber, or Twitter), and Smartphone accessible maps for citizens and emergency response ground teams.”

But I have a few questions about these app contest. I think it is a wonderful way to gain contributions, but what happens to the app longterm? One highly touted crime-data app that grew out of contest in Washington DC just 2 years ago is no-longer available in iTunes app store. With shrinking budgets, it might seem wise to invest in an App challenge, but continued investments are need in order to keep those Apps current. Another challenge, I think for this application in particular, is that it has some similar features to Ushahidi. This could also present challenges for first responders: too many maps. This application will allow responders to “view all of the help requests on the webpage” but what about those requests or reports not made through the app?

I asked the broad question to the #SMEM community on twitter about the value of these contests and one response was that they “stimulate the tech pool”. Another benefit, of course, is civic engagement. People feel empowered when they create an application that accesses government data and changes it from an excel spreadsheet to an interactive-visualization application that allows users to gain information about their current location in real-time.  Eric Kant or @TIJTechOps, added: “Emergency Management is a big word , many disciplines many unmet tech needs + big gap of techops staff to use/implement solutions.” Therefore, I’m gleaning from his statement that app contest have a lot of value, even if the value might not be immediately realized.

3 responses to “In a Crisis? There’s an App for that.

  1. Excellent post Kim! There is another, federal initiative, Apps for Communities, that is encouraging the nationwide developer community to build some generic apps focused on smaller/more rural communities who don’t have the depth of tech-savvy populations to turn to for app developments like those of DC, Portland, etc.

    It’s too early to see the results yet (submission period runs until July), but this may be yet another resource to consider, particular in EM, given that those smaller communities also traditionally have less EM resources in general as compared to larger jurisdictions.

  2. kim26stephens

    Thanks for you comment. I will be very interested to see if the trend in App contest is a fad or a new process that all levels of government commit to longer term. Time will tell, I suppose.

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