Since the March earthquake and tsunami hit that Japan, there’s been no shortage of new apps designed to help users prepare for, deal with and even recover from a disaster.
But are these apps offering quality and potentially helpful information, or just playing on fears?
“There is a thin line between what is fear mongering and what is providing transparent information for people who have their feet on the ground,” says Charles Golvin, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. “The extent to what may be fear mongering is holding up a mirror to the individual for their response.”
There is no definitive number of how many apps are currently available, with new ones popping up every time something bad happens.
But many of these apps are free or available for a low cost, and include the Emergency Radio App for the Apple iPhone, which costs about $1, and delivers thousands of live radio feeds, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather; to the free iPhone American Red Cross: Shelter Views.
Apps such as the Disaster Readiness ($1.99 for iPhone and Android) compiles previously tips on preparing for a disaster with checklists and shelter locations, while the more expensive DisasterAlert for the RIM BlackBerry($24.95 for lifetime access) offers real time warning for earthquakes and tsunamis, highlighting the user’s location respective to the disaster.
But there are also far less ‘useful apps,’ such as the various “Geiger Counter” apps, which of course don’t really work to detect radiation levels, but might be good for playing tricks on your friends. It could be seen as harmless fun, but given the scope of the ongoing crisis in Japan, could the phone carries eventually crack down given worries of potential insensitiveness?
“Carriers are likely to be open to any sort of disaster apps as long as they are useful and don't deliver incorrect information to their customers,” says Ronan de Renesse, Head of Mobile for IHS Screen Digest. “This said; operators have very little control over applications stores such as Apple App Store.”
What about apps such as the recently released Nuclear Site Locator ($1.99 for iPhone and Android)? While the app provides a list of all known active and non-active plants and can even display the name and distance of every nuclear site from a user’s current location, this isn’t actually secret knowledge or information that isn’t already available. Is this about being prepared or just paranoia?
“The idea of informing people of the location for nuclear sites in the U.S. does not offer anything in terms of preparedness, response, or recovery,” says DeeDee Bennett, doctoral candidate with Oklahoma State University’s Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events. “I would imagine those living near nuclear sites are most likely familiar with them.”
As has been seen with other apps, the market will actually police itself, and this could help determine how the carriers and phone makers respond.
“We’ve seen a number of instances where Apple may let through an app initially, but then the backlash prompts a response that says that it is insensitive or politically incorrect.” Golvin adds, “Response from the populace that it is inappropriate could result in Apple or the carriers banning them.”
Apps such as “Baby Shaker” and “PhantomALERT,” which allowed users to see common drunk-driving checkpoints, were initially released but sparked outrage and were eventually pulled. But even those that don’t get yanked can still find be called out by user reviews and ratings.
As for the apps that provide information, such as disaster preparation tips and facts, could be the ones that will be graded based on whether the information is useful or helpful.
Golvin adds that the ability of users to rate and grade the apps will help to separate “the wheat from the chaff.”
He stresses that those makers producing high quality or useful information, even if they don’t have a brand name associated with disaster preparation will win out, and the apps that provide less than useful information will not find an audience.
Another consideration is whether this is a viable business for app makers, or just a response to a season that has seen so many disasters.
“I don’t think there is a clear business model yet around this type of apps, except for complementing an existing online service or website,” says de Renesse.
"We should see or use smartphone applications like any other bit of information or technology in disasters. "
Another consideration for app makers is that the market is still growing, and as de Renesse notes, smartphone users still account for less than 20 percent of all mobile phone uses, while specific apps—such as tsunami alerts won’t do much for those whose greater fears are tornadoes.
“Those apps have a fairly limited addressable market as they are mainly restrained to smartphone users, and people living within areas prone to disasters,” says de Renesse, “If there is some money to made from disaster apps, it will be very much event-based and therefore not a very sustainable source of income.”
Where the smartphone could help individuals is actually after a disaster occurred. FEMA launched a mobile website last year to help make it easier for individuals who live in communities that have been declared eligible for federal assistance to apply from their handsets.
But even FEMA’s experts say the smartphone should only be part of the overall disaster preparedness and recovery strategy.
“Like any tools, if people plan to use smartphone applications and other social media tools for emergency purposes, they should be familiar with how to use them,” says Brad Carroll of FEMA. “It's important to have information pre-stored and other contingencies in place so applications can still be used if cellular signals go down.”
In the end, disaster experts agree that the smartphone might be best used as part of a wide ranging strategy in disaster preparation, rather than the sole source for planning.
“We should see or use smartphone applications like any other bit of information or technology in disasters,” says Dr. David M. Neal, Director at the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University.
“It is just one piece of the overall picture," Neal argues. "Just as we should not entirely rely upon outdoor warning systems to know that a tornado is coming, we should not solely rely on just phone apps or even more broadly our smart phones for dealing with disaster.”