May 13, 2019
Issue 05 2019

Responsibility and disaster: can mobile apps do better?

In a world where our lives are threatened by natural and unnatural hazards, the notion of responsibility and who is responsible for such events must be re-evaluated by our leaders.

Tech giants such as Facebook and Google have been facing these challenges for over a decade now, but what about something as seemingly trivial as mobile applications? Between humans and the disaster-risk environment, mobile apps play a major part in ensuring, or at least attempting to ensure, our safety. Global climate change and the continued fear of the ‘unknown’ terrorist have given rise to the need for warning prompts for people at risk to disaster.

Apps have the opportunity to save lives, but do the developers recognise their power and responsibility to do so? Massey University PhD student Marion Tan questions whether these developers understand the responsibility they hold. Tan’s research looks at the interface between technology and humans during disasters. Her work so far shows that there is a need for developers to recognise the responsibility they hold and strengthen the usability of mobile apps for all people.

Tan’s research is inspired from personal experience. Originally from the Philippines, her home country experiences the wrath of 20 tropical cyclones (on average) a year. Tan knows what it’s like to be stranded when flood waters are rising. Her primary mode of communication during some such dire events were through the use of mobile phones and apps, which inspired her to take on a PhD in emergency and disaster risk management.

When Tan moved to Wellington in 2016, she experienced the Kaikōura earthquake. Tan wanted to let her family know she was fine. You’d think a PhD student studying emergency management would know how to handle this situation. Thrive, don’t just survive, as the saying goes.

But Tan is a human being. She looked down at her phone as she tried to send a message back home and saw her hands shaking. Thankfully, her familiarity with an app’s interface allowed her to send and receive messages and information. But it got her thinking.

Teenagers and university students are engrossed in this digital mobile revolution – we know how to use apps. But what about the 60-year-old with arthritis in their hands can’t type a text when his landline is down? What happens to the 70-year-old whose glasses have broken during an earthquake and can’t see the small print? And the young 11-year-old who now has a smartphone but in a space of disaster is too anxious to take action? Shit.   

This isn’t just for communicative apps. Let’s question informational apps, Tan says. When a disaster strikes and my iPhone screen is displaying a lifesaving message, no way am I going to read it whilst my 7am alarm is blaring at me. Pressing ‘okay’ is all that matters to my ears. Sort the situation after, right? But then the message disappears – so what’s happening again? Shit.

Tan’s research highlights interface and design problems such as this. Many apps are “tick box apps”. They do a simple job sharing information, but they disregard important aspects on how that information is communicated out and how that information is received. Essentially, the usability of certain apps are, well, shit.

Thankfully, we have students like Marion who are advocating for responsible design and responsible communication in mobile disaster related apps. Communication during disasters is critical to mental and physical health. When disaster strikes we reach for our phones. We check our loved ones and our push notifications. App makers and the powers that be need to recognise their responsibility in today’s digital society – they can save lives but only if their apps are effective. Apps need to be useful and usable for everyone. It may seem trivial now, but not when the ‘big one’ hits.