Monday, 19 May 2014

FEMA Smart Phone App Review - Part III

FEMA Hurricane Sandy briefing on October 31, 2012 (photo credit: FEMA)

Last week, we published Part I and II of our in-depth review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) smart phone application available free for Android, iPhone and RIM phones. It should be noted that there is a web based version that operates in the same manner with the same features enabling inputs and viewing from any computer with current web browser versions from Firefox, Mozilla, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Opera connected to the internet.

To summarize what we have already covered, FEMA's smart phone app serves multiple purposes. The app informs the public to deliver disaster education, serve as a two way information portal, receive citizen disaster reports that can support the agency's internal and external partners. The application is designed and scaled to support any type of crisis or disaster FEMA may become engaged to support at the local, regional or national level. Many would argue it is still in an early stage of development and has not yet fully matured as finished product. There is some merit to this, but like all products and services, the road map to success is through continued development and feature upgrades. Overall, the app is very good and capable. It is a solid foundation with which to start and expand as required. It supports current needs and capable of delivering future advances as they become available.

Software never remains static for long. The version reviewed is version  2.4.0 and not considered a beta. It has proven reliable and stable in our test lab and in the field. It does have a few quirks and features that users need to be aware of as noted in Part II. Performance is dependent on a user's power management when enabling the apps multimedia and mapping capabilities. There are limitations if not connected to the internet, but the app still offers powerful offline capabilities that can then be pushed to FEMA after reconnecting to the internet.

Features that we like are its resource database of disaster preparedness information covering 16 different types of crisis and disaster scenarios from drought to winter storms and extreme cold. How to build a emergency preparedness kit, something we all tend to forget about and solid reminders of what we need to endure after a disaster hits. A user can input where they live and understand where Emergency meeting locations will be hosted by local and regional authorities after a incident occurs. And when you are stuck, the app informs a user of resources that could be available. The disaster reporter is a powerful tool and is the first step of public engagement between FEMA and the community in establishing the severity of an event when it occurs. It  is not designed to be a historical archive or emergency call response mechanism. It may evolve in the future to the support this type of ability, but for now, it is highly unlikely. It does offer a bridge between the public and the agency to build awareness and situation information, after a disaster occurs, building a two way dialogue much in the same way crowd sourcing works. Time will tell how effective it is.

We like how it integrates FEMA's Social Hub portal offering a window to other social media based resources the agency uses and its partners like the National Weather Service on Twitter. There are features we would like to see enhanced. The agency has connectivity and access to State Emergency Management partners and should build a database of information that identifies how close a users's device is to those resources using a smart phone's GPS capability. This would help those that frequently travel around the country and be empowered to understand what resources are available to them while away from home.

We would like to see the disaster reporter portion of the application offer the user the ability to categorize a user input report. For example, when a user uploads an image for submission, a user could offer the circumstances of the image, by clicking on a pull down menu, offering a menu of the type of event, e.g.  flood, hurricane, tornado, ice storm, etc.. This would allow FEMA to quickly categorize the type of reports it is receiving and vice versa, publishing to the public an understanding of the type of disaster reporter images currently active when viewing submissions.

We would also like to see FEMA offer layered metadata from other sources including local, state and federal partners on its disaster maps. This can be achieved using a variety of techniques such as KML (Keyhole Mark up Language) or XML (extensible mark up language). Both are compatible with Open Street Map (OSM) and of course Google Maps. These metadata layers could include local or federal resources that notify and deliver temporary information sources compiled by volunteer technical communities (VTC's) and other open (and closed) data sets.

We would also like to see the timeline tool used in the web based version, to be included in the smart phone version of disaster reporter that allows a user to view reports relative to the time frame they specify (e.g. last 1, 3, 7 days, etc.). This saves bandwidth and access time on what they want to view or analyze.

Another feature that we would like to see embedded in the future is geospatial referenced warnings as alerts sent to the FEMA app in a section called "Alert Notices". These could be categorized or color coded as to the level and nature of the alert and be authored with FEMA's federal partners such as NWS, NOAA, USGS, etc. in addition to State and Local Emergency Management departments and agencies. By doing so, this reduced the amount of different applications and notification tools a user has to rely upon to open up or query to determine if they are affected and take action. Such an alert would be geo referenced based on the location of the smart phone's actual location or by a user input (and voluntary) of location desired. It should offer multiple location alert options for those that take care of others that do not have access to technology or smart phones,  a common issue for those that support their elderly family members that may be in a different city or state.

So why is it not part of the app? Software developers would tell you that it would be a piece of cake to do so. There are a few reasons why, including jurisdiction and constitutional issues that would require agreement and resolution in order to  embed local and state alerts. Many will note that FEMA retweets local and regional level notices. But this is only done AFTER local authorities have published social media notices . It does not activate any official notices on its own merit. FEMA is a support agency to local and state level agencies, not a lead incident command authority unless authorized by the President (e.g. National Security Act) While it may seem to be more of a formality than a real conflict of control, it is a sensitive issue. There are also real technical (bandwidth, synchronization, etc.) issues such as interconnecting the app to over 200+ State and local / regional / county Emergency Management agencies spread across the country and overseas territories and abiding by each State's laws.

We only found one bug in version 2.4.0.  Believe it or not, turning off the app is not manually possible unless you kill it through Androids app manager. There is no pop up option to turn off or close the application using either of the phones menu return or settings buttons.

The App could not be closed or exited using any of three buttons at the bottom.
The only way to shut down the app is to manually "force" it to be closed.
This is the only bug we found in FEMA's Android application version 2.4.0 which is pretty darned good. Leave a comment below to give your feedback. We would like to get your opinions on its usefulness and problems you may have experienced or take our survey poll located on the right of this column. According to the Google Play Store, it has been downloaded over 50,000 times. We found it to be a very useful smart phone app and would recommend it for use by anyone who lives or is visiting the U.S. Over the coming years it will be very interesting to see how this app develops and grows. It can and should save lives.

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