With the rise in frequency and intensity of unexpected disasters, the need for effective communication technologies such as the use of social and mobile tools seems to be growing for responding to disaster situations in emergency, rescue and relief efforts. COVID-19 has been declared as ‘notified disaster’ by the central government recently in a move it called “a special one-time dispensation”, to contain the spread of the infectious virus.
The Kerala government has launched a new mobile app on coronavirus that provides information regarding COVID-19 and the virus outbreak. A mobile application is being developed by the district administration at Pune to keep a track of people suspected to have coronavirus as well as those who have been tested positive for the virus. Through the app, citizen and doctors alike will be able to provide data, which will make it easier for the authorities to reach out. Plans are underway for doctors to refer patients through the app, so the authorities will be able to track them down easily and follow up.
In spite of these initiatives and a push for mobile based technologies and disaster-related apps, India’s risk profile continues to be high because of poor data availability in disaster management.
Have disaster-related mobile apps taken off as a resource among users in India?
A study ‘Operationalizing crowdsourcing through mobile applications for disaster management in India’ indicates that the outreach of 33 freely available disaster-related mobile apps in India is “very limited”, with most of them being educational. The study by Vibhas Sukhwani and Rajib Shaw, researchers at Keio University, Japan published in the journal Progress in Disaster Science, Volume 5, January 2020 underscores the potential of crowdsourcing through Global Positioning System (GPS)-enabled mobile apps in disasters.
The apps available on the official Google play store were assessed based on defined outreach parameters like the number of downloads, user rating, primary and secondary functions among others. The selected apps were a mix of government, private and research/institutional initiatives and covered six broad areas such as educational/games/guides, alerts and notification, helpline/emergency contacts, emergency tools/resources, case-specific and GPS-based.
The state of disaster-related mobile apps
The authors observed that of the 33 apps, there are a total of 16 apps which span beyond their primary functions and are multifunctional. The apps analysed in the study include: India Emergency Contact, Kannur Disaster Management, Rakshak and India EQ Maps. 5 of the 33 apps are found to be case specific (Mumbai, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Kannur) and their functions are primarily concerned with people within a defined boundary. Off the remaining 28 apps, majority of applications (18) are found to be primarily educational apps.
Some such as India EQ Maps are centred on one particular disaster such as earthquakes. Of the 33 apps assessed, a few are not specifically related to India such as IOWA legal aid, Disaster Response team, Building eVac etc. These provide generalised educational information that is useful for everyone, and were hence included.
Only 7 of these mobile apps use GPS sensors, of which only 4 apps have primary functions based on GPS. 2 of these GPS based apps (Disaster Message Board MAP and Family Disaster Manager) are intended to function as information boards for disasters, while the other 2 apps namely Disaster Management Vaishali and FDAS Disaster Management System are primarily intended for crowdsourcing disaster-related information.
The study finds that the total number of downloads (globally) for 29 selected apps (data not available for 4 apps) is 1.579 million, out of which the major share has been contributed by 3 apps namely Relief Central (Medical aid), Disaster Alert (Real-time alerts) and Disaster Will Strike (Puzzle game). These 3 apps are not specific to the context of India and have a global focus. Despite the flourishing app market in India, the study finds that the average number of downloads for the selected apps have reached a minimal figure of 1119, if the 3 said apps are excluded.
The 2 apps that are primarily intended for crowdsourcing have supposedly failed to achieve their desired purpose as evident from their poor outreach. One of those apps (FDAS-Disaster Management System) is found to have a user rating of ‘1 out of 5’ which is very critical when compared to the average user rating of all the selected apps (4.33 out of 5) and the prime reason behind that is alleged to be the non-user-friendly interface (as observed from the user reviews). Based on the user reviews for the selected apps, the authors realize that the mobile apps having lengthy login process, performance issues, loading problems, frequent push notifications etc., are not been preferred.
Key findings and suggestions
The results indicate that a country with a population of 1.35 billion and flourishing app market, the current outreach of these disaster-related apps is almost negligible.
- Enhancing community outreach of disaster-related mobile apps (downloads): To enhance community outreach, there is need to address the key issues that limit the use of these apps at large scale like application interface, requirements of target population, type of apps depending on the purpose (game-based, open contests etc,). There is also a core need to learn and understand from mobile apps like Relief Central, Disaster Alert and Disaster Will Strike, which have wide community outreach. There is a genuine need for engaging local communities for operationalizing app-based crowdsourcing.
- Ensuring user-friendly application interface (user rating): It is important to ensure that mobile app takes into consideration the varying needs of target community including the language, age and gender groups, relevant information sharing etc. There is also a need to ensure that the disaster-related apps cater to the mobile phones used by the target population in terms of interoperability, OS compatibility etc. depending on country and regional preferences. Although there are technical limitations of mobile apps to function only in selected OS, due consideration should be given to the OS used by majority of target users.
- Promoting GPS-based mobile apps for crowdsourcing (key functions): Utilizing GPS-based mobile apps in disaster research for data collection and organization shall provide genuine scaffolding to all the concerned stakeholders for drawing out information patterns and management strategies especially for the unmonitored areas.
The study highlights successful cases like in the case of Cyclone Hudhud wherein the underlying barriers have successfully been overcome and the potential of citizen science has been effectually utilized. Given the high usage of social media apps in India, the study suggests that disaster-related operations should regularly be integrated with dedicated platforms like in case of PetaBencana.id and Ushahidi, wherein the people can effectively assist the humanitarian organizations by communicating the latest disaster-related information in the digital form (photos, videos, text etc.).
Citation: Sukhwani, V., & Shaw, R. (2020). Operationalizing crowdsourcing through mobile applications for disaster management in India. Progress in Disaster Science, 5, 100052.
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