Smartphone Apps, the Next Step for Social Media and Emergency Management?

Post by: Kim Stephens


bushfire (Photo credit: theangrypenguin)

One thing we are hearing loud and clear from the January, 2013 Australian bushfire disaster is that people are turning to social media for information. This is demonstrated by a quote from Stuart Howie of “The Border Mail” in an article titled “Opinion: Social media a life saver.”

Indeed yesterday, as bushfires swept across large tracts of land in New South Wales and destroyed properties in Victoria, social media helped save lives. Just as it is hard to predict what the winds of change will do during these infernos, it may be dangerous to hazard a guess at how many lives. A few? Dozens? Perhaps many more. However, I have no doubt that the ability of social media in conjunction with established media outlets to spread emergency information to scattered communities meant residents were, in many circumstances, kept as well informed as the fire crews battling the constantly changing circumstances. And they got out of the path of annihilation.

But believe it or not, I don’t think the lesson to be learned from this event will be that social media can help spread information. Numerous disasters, including SuperStorm Sandy, have made this use of social networking almost self-evident. One thing we might learn, however, is the increasing power and usefulness of mobile applications, provided they are done well. The private sector is also learning this lesson, see the article “Forget social media, smartphone apps are the new customer service tool.”

The Need to Provide Mobile-Ready Information 

During a crisis, organizations are increasingly comfortable with providing critical information and emergency updates via social media. However, one of the lessons we have learned as an SMEM community, is that the people who most need the information are also the least likely to be viewing it on a computer screen.  Therefore, when a hyperlink is included in a Tweet or a Facebook post it should link to information that is mobile ready. Some would even argue that in low bandwidth situations, a link shouldn’t be included at all.

The  Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria, Australia or @CFA_Updates on Twitter, seems to have learned the mobile-ready lesson. According to their Facebook page, the CFA  is one of the largest volunteer-based emergency management organizations in the world and are one of the main agencies involved in bushfire fighting. Via their social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, during this recent disaster, they have been providing a constant stream of official emergency warnings, incident updates and media releases.

This Tweet, however, really impressed me:

Why? I clicked on the link in the Tweet on my smartphone, because the Tweet itself made no sense to me, and I expected a long delay for a website to download. Instead, I was directed to their mobile-ready content. Furthermore, once there I had the choice of downloading their mobile app, which I did.

MFA Mobile App What’s in the App?

The content of the App is very impressive, even though, as they state on their website, some people have experienced problems with the latest version–which is really unfortunate timing. An article titled “CFA website can’t handle the heat” noted how the CFA website and phone app had to be placed on separate servers after both had problems during the worst of the heatwave due to extremely high user demand. There’s a lesson learned–or re-learned–there are well! Nonetheless, I was able to navigate through the most of the app without too many issues.

There are many things I found useful, but I’d like to highlight 5 items.

  1. Incident Information The application has a very handy map interface that allows users to quickly see  where fires are located as well as the fire’s current status. People can even sign up to get alerts of warnings when fires are within a specified radius of the user-defined “Watch Zone.”
  2. Each fire symbol is clickable which takes the user to a screen that provides detailed information about that event, including how many trucks are on scene and the percent contained.
  3. One thing I LOVE about the “Incident Detail” screen is that users can share the details of an incident to their social networks straight from the app. Providing an easy way for citizens to share your content should be a goal of every organization:  the more information is shared the more it is seen. photo-7
  4. The app does not squelch the sharing of user-generated content, in fact it encourages it. A tab for “photos” reveals contributions from citizens who have uploaded images to the app. The purpose is to provide situational awareness content from the perspective of the community, but the unstated purpose is more psychological. People like to feel that they are contributing in emergency situations, even if it is a small act such as uploading a picture. This feature sends a huge signal to the community that says: “We are all in this together.”
  5. SocialTheir social media streams are embedded in the app. This means that the user does not have to leave the environment of the app in order to view this content. This makes for a handy one-stop shop for all of their streams of communication. I noticed, however, that this feature seems to be where some of their current bugs are occurring.

What’s Next?

Despite the little hiccups with the app during this current disaster, I see it as the future. What I also see, however, are other issues that will need to be resolved. For example, during a crisis whose app will the community be encouraged to use?The one from the American Red Cross, FEMA, the local Fire Service, Emergency Management Office, or the local City or County Government? Or will citizens be forced to download all of them and then go from app to app to gain all of the particulars they need, from protective action measures to recovery information. Open data is probably they answer, but that’s another post!

Let me know what you think? Is your organization developing a mobile app?

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7 responses to “Smartphone Apps, the Next Step for Social Media and Emergency Management?

  1. a great post … once again shows the critical importance of the social convergence (social networks + mobile tech) … simply put: organizations move at the speed of their audience (using social media) or they are irrelevant because people move on …AND they use mobile tech to have a chance to reach their audiences on the tools they use …

    Agencies and governments ignore these truths at their peril …

  2. Great post and I want to address your points 3 & 4.

    I work in Kosovo with the United Nations Development Programme and part of our programme is working on disaster risk reduction. Recently our sister office in Macedonia has developed an app similar to the one you highlight above ( We will be working with the Kosovo Agency for Emergency Management to expand the app for Kosovo also.

    In some cases where emergency responders are under-resourced, citizen particpation is not just a feel-good psycological boost for the community, but it can actually provide critical information to the government. Crowd sourcing may actually provide government bodies with the information needed to make life saving decisions. It could also speed the process of post diaster needs assessments during early recovery.

    Of course the down side to such a reliance on the public maybe a continued lack of under investment and nefarious reporting that actually causes the government to misallocate resources.

  3. Pingback: Smartphone Apps, the Next Step for Social Media and Emergency ... | Social media korniv |

  4. Excellent post and very helpful information on the presented application. Social Innovation incl. social media are one of the best contributors to public safety and prevention and response in case of disasters and accidents.

    UNDP Macedonia together with the National Crisis Management Center has designed and developed a mobile phone application for disaster risk reduction that is a first kind of DRR application in the region. It provides access to detailed information on disastrous and hazardous events with precise location on map, their status, important emergency numbers and advice on how best to protect and to respond to the danger. Despite the holders of the mobile phones (at this stage smartphones with Android OS), public sector (transportation, services, finances, insurance etc.) use the information in order to support the adequate planning, resource management that should lead to decrease of costs.

    More info on the application on the following link:

    The application has a potential for becoming a regional/sub-regional mobile platform on DRR.

  5. Pingback: Smartphone Apps, the Next Step for Social Media and Emergency Management? | CoCreation & Social Product Development |

  6. Pingback: Smartphone Apps, the Next Step for Social Media and Emergency Management? « #UASI

  7. Reblogged this on DisasterNet and commented:
    I love the idea of mobile first strategy when it comes to applications. We are increasingly virtual and need the flexibility our phones offer to input and receive relevant information.
    My question, though, is is a mobile application by jurisdiction the best way to go since the public and other citizen responders are not bounded by jurisdiction, but rather geography?

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