Monday, 12 May 2014

FEMA Smart Phone App review - Part II

Smart phone technology has undergone vast improvements since the term 'smart' was coined in mobile - wireless phone technology. Phones now have communications technology and sensors once the pure domain and use in laptop and medium sized form factor tablet computers. On the drawing boards of mobile device manufacturers are designs and processing technology that could literately operate an entire organization from a device that fits into the palm of your hand. That's the future. What about right now?

Star Trek gizmo dreams aside, new services are here now, or just one version upgrade away. Phones now have quad processors and SOC's or Systems on a Chip, designed with software code embedded into the chip modules, solid state hard drive space (SSD) of 16 Gb and higher with screen sizes and clarity that deliver rich application services, either as a standalone or cloud connected device. Imagery technology has increased tenfold in smart phones, capable of embedding EXchangable Image File (EXIF) metadata such as GPS coordinates along with image information, time stamp, technical image details.

Smart phones are no longer reliant on one communications service provider. Smart phones can receive and send data using different frequencies and technologies including most versions of CDMA, GSM, Near Field Communications (NFC) / Bluetooth, and all versions of WiFi (a/g/h/n). In effect, it is built in redundancy. The newest models of smart phone can be loaded with dual Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) slots, enabling connectivity with more than one carrier, a valuable option in a disaster zone.

If there is one drawback to smart phones, it is their battery duration limits. Even with multiple batteries, performance is often limited to less than 4 hours per battery. This is particularly true if a devices communications services along with GPS and camera are active. The power drain can turn out to be enormous. Some phones barely last three hours when cycled tested and used in extreme conditions. One phone tested, operated for 94 minutes before its battery died. But there are solutions that solve this problem as noted in Part I.

Five years ago, FEMA could not foresee the power of today's smart phones. When it did, it wasted little time experimenting and developing a wireless device application. Steady progress and updates to the application are providing valuable knowledge and understanding how these devices can and are used by outside organizations and how employees inside FEMA can leverage its value. Today we see not only the capability to let the public know what is happening during a disaster, but how to prepare and protect themselves during an event. FEMA's app has added features that now make it possible for the public to send information such as disaster images with the option to file a small report on what the images is showing and where. It shows where the image was taken using the phone's GPS receiver and embedding it into the EXIF file. FEMA stresses that this information does not profile or collect personal information.

FEMA Smart Phone disclaimer;

FEMA does not see, collect, or store any data you enter into the App. Any and all information you enter into the App is stored on your device and not on FEMAs website or server. As such, FEMA is not responsible for any damages resulting from the loss or theft of that information.

The agency does acknowledge through the use of Microsoft Bing maps along with other third party providers including Microsoft, Open Street Map and Google, that some metadata could be collected, such as what map and location the user is focusing on, but not collect user specific information through the use of cookies or other plug-ins.

The Disaster Reporter function of the application is a clean and very easy to use and straight forward. A user can take a picture, add details and submit it to FEMA. But as FEMA states, it does not include or even ask who you are. It does require GPS to be turned on or the image will be rejected. If a user is out of range of communication services, the user can take multiple pictures and then upload them when connected using any of the methods described above by using the "From my Photo Album" button. This is particularly value from a user standpoint of view, allowing the user to turn off the phone's communications services, but leaving the GPS sensor on, thereby extending battery power. In some cases, this can extend a phone's battery cycle by 30 to 40%. It should be noted, some early smart phone models claimed to have GPS, when in fact had very limited capability and used triangulation to estimate a users location using a wireless operators cell tower, calculated using signal strength (and time). Most post 2012 phones have done away with this design by using next generation GPS sensor technology such as Broadcom's BCM47521 chipset.

Sample Disaster Reporter Image submitted by public user.

Modern smart phones can achieve impressive results. FEMA lets a user decide how and what gets reported. The app does not restrict parameters except description length. By engaging the public, enhanced situation awareness can be quickly created and leveraged by all departments inside FEMA to support and deliver services to local and state agencies. There does appear to be some inconsistencies and differences between the standard computer version of the FEMA disaster reporting website and the smart phone version.

Web version shows 12 recorded events over a 30 day period, while the Android version shows over 130. 

The web version gives the user the ability to see what images have been uploaded over different time scales. A user can set incident reports to the past 24 hours along with 3, 7, 14, 30, and 60 days or ALL, while the smart phone version does not. This should fixed in a future version. FEMA has clearly stated that while crowd sourcing disaster information will enhance the agencies understanding of a disaster, it is NOT a replacement or tool for emergency help or to make a response request. This disclaimer is clearly stated in the Terms of Use section.

Had this application been available in its current form during Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, the submission of crowd sourced data would have been immense where communications were still available. In these scenarios, its usefulness might have caused two separate lines of thinking. The potential for misdirection as to the scale of the disaster or its confirmation with the sudden explosion of published reports. Moving forward, FEMA faces potential consequences despite disclaimers and warnings explicitly stated. As Digital Globe's Tomnod crowd source project found out, managing hundreds of thousands of crowd source volunteers during the search of Malaysian Flight MH-370, imagery analysis and interaction can overwhelm and saturate bandwidth in a microsecond as 2.3 million people (100,000 per minute) attempted to participate. For FEMA, the shear scale of the performance demands required are significant. In my 2012 book, Constructive Convergence: Imagery & Humanitarian Assistance, it illustrated the performance parameters required in order to support operations on the scale of a Katrina or Sandy. FEMA faces similar design and network architecture issues and will require annual review. 

FEMA continues to evolve, expanding capabilities inside the organization by implementing new data management techniques, analytics, and visualization tools. The speed of transactions now possible to observe and orientate the agency are as powerful as any systems used by large commercial or government platform in production (e.g. Google or NORAD in Colorado Springs). Because the images will already have EXIF information, including geospatial metadata, the sorting and plotting of the information will require very little additional processing. But the actual review and analysis of the imagery could prove problematic. FEMA does not (yet) have automated imagery analysis tools. In fact, nobody does, demanding human processing and review. FEMA has sidestepped this issue by making the data open for anyone to view and take action. In effect, FEMA has created an environment that crowd sources in both directions.

FEMA can augment as required using the same crowd source process within its own organization, adding local and State partners to analyze images identified as critical in creating disaster response options. Sovereign immunity is currently thought to be sufficient to protect various emergency safety management organizations along with clearly written terms and conditions. The story does not end here as to its usefulness in an out side of FEMA's regions of responsibility. The current (Android) release is 2.4.0 . It would not surprise me to see 5 more releases before the end of this year. Take a moment leave a comment on your experiences using FEMA's smart phone app or answer our poll question on the right. FEMA's application is available for iPhone, Android and RIM phones.

Part III covers features we would like to see added and bugs experienced. 

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