Shawna Pandya is co-founder & CMO at CiviGuard, a start-up arising from the inaugural session of Singularity University and the 109+ challenge to positively impact 1 billion people in 10 years using accelerating technologies. For more information on the company, visit www.civiguard.com. Follow on Twitter @civiguard and @shawnapandya. For more information, please contact [email protected].

Can your smartphone save you when disaster strikes?

Imagine that you have just been completely blindsided by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake – not too hard given recent events in Haiti, Chile, Mexico and China. Between collapsed buildings and mass casualties, chaos runs rampant. What next? How do you reach safety while avoiding collapsed structures? Where do you find medical aid and shelter? Where can you access basic survival information?

What if your smartphone had the answers?

It’s a question we asked ourselves when we set out to create the next generation of crisis response technologies at CiviGuard.

Today, for all our advances in the twenty-first century, some things remain beyond our control. We can’t reliably predict when and where the next big earthquake will occur, or the path of the next big pandemic. Until the day when we finally have weather-making machines and instant vaccines, a large part of disaster preparedness will necessarily lie in building up our response capabilities. However, the summation of disasters over the past decade – pandemics, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes – has shown us that even our response mechanisms can be, at times, lacking.

This is particularly pertinent knowing that over 240 million people are impacted by natural and man-made disasters every year. Of these, more can die waiting for aid and assistance in the hours following than during the impact itself. As we have heard time and time again from the first response community, the strength of a response can be traced back to communication, coordination & collaboration – the ‘3Cs of Disaster Response.’ Technology has a role to play here, but only if it is resilient, easy to use and reliable. Striving to meet these needs while addressing the ‘3Cs’ lays out a formidable challenge, essentially calling for a paradigm shift in crisis communications.

An optimal solution would be one that allows incident command to deliver trusted, up-to-the-minute information straight to the palm of the user’s hand in a way that is extremely simple, ultra-rapid, resilient and useful even when the mobile network is down. To derive the utmost value, this information needs to be specific to the user’s location. In an ideal world, such a platform would also enable collaborating emergency management agencies to communicate their information to one another. These are the parameters we kept in mind when creating the CiviGuard platform.

The CiviGuard Platform allows emergency response personnel to visualize their region, select sub-regions and send out location-specific messages to users. Civilians receive smartphone updates on evacuation routes and points-of-interests based on their location. Collaborating agencies can also share their information via a real-time data feed.

At the back-end, we’ve created CiviCommand for incident command personnel, which leverages Google, Bing, Yahoo and OpenStreet Maps (depending on what is available and appropriate) to model and execute scenarios in near real-time. The system is touch-screen based to allow users a more intuitive experience – ideal in times of crisis. Additionally, scenario execution can be completed in 6 steps: users classify a scenario as being either an evacuation or isolation case, delineate the crisis zone where the situation is unfolding, outline the notification zone which needs to be alerted of the situation, identify exit points and route plans based on the situation and compose 140 character messages to be sent to the crisis and notification zones. Once complete, the operator merely presses the “activate” button to initialize the scenario. We also designed the system so that scenarios can be suspended or halted as events evolve and multiple scenarios can run in parallel.

Top: The CiviCommand interface allows emergency management personnel to visualize a region by real-time population density/distribution. Bottom: The interface also lets officials transmit location-specific information according to geographic, zip code or custom subdivisions.

At the front-end, we’ve created a system that alerts civilians of the situation via SMS, email or push notifications, depending on what is most optimal at the time. Once notified, users initiate the CiviGuard smartphone application or use their browser to navigate to a mobile URL. The browser-based version of CiviGuard leverages WAP (for simple phone browsers) and HTML5+WebKit (for advanced browsers), but the richest experience is delivered via the native CiviGuard application for iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry operating systems.

Once activated natively or over the HTML5 interface, the civilian-side app transmits user location back to incident command every 30-60 seconds, making the CiviGuard the first emergency management platform to establish an active location feedback loop. With this element, first responders can not only guide the population, but can also know if civilians are able to follow through on the instructions. If instructions aren’t being followed, it could be a sign that the command center needs to re-examine their data and modify their scenario execution strategy accordingly.

Of course, when creating the architecture, we realized that networks can fail in an emergency. In the event that packet data connectivity is lost in an emergency, we’ve ensured that civilians still receive text-only updates via SMS. In this case, instructions are extended over multiple messages using an ordering and correlation protocol. In the event that even packet data and radio services fail, civilians still have the option of reviewing locally cached maps and points of interest to plan their next actions.

To enable collaboration between partner agencies, CiviInsight, our data API and mash-up platform, allows partners to access vast amounts of scenario-related data and leverage it for visualization and assessment. Wholly browser-based, the platform allows users to rapidly “mash-up” data from multiple GIS services and platforms to create a composite picture of the scenario unfolding on the ground.

If the call to take on disaster response sounds more than a little challenging, it is because CiviGuard arose from equally ambitious roots at Singularity University at NASA-Ames, Silicon Valley, a mere 7 months ago. In its inaugural year, Singularity University assembled 40 students from 14 countries from an applicant pool of 1200+, 60 countries, and nearly as many disciplines, and tasked us with a mission to positively impact 1 billion people in 10 years, using accelerating and emerging technologies. No pressure or anything.

For the 9 of us comprising the initial team, choosing a problem space was easy. Natural and man-made disasters represent a 6.8 billion person challenge, threatening anyone, anywhere, anytime. Whether you are referring to a tsunami in the South Pacific, an earthquake in Haiti or San Francisco, or a global pandemic, this is a truly a 6.8B person problem space.

On the solution side, we noticed another trend: smartphones. These little devices are becoming increasingly powerful, and increasingly pervasive. In late 2009, RBC Markets projected that smartphone sales worldwide would supersede PC sales by the end of 2011, approaching 400 million smartphones worldwide – a pretty telling number.

As we set out developing our concepts, working 20-hour days, 7 days a week, we were also cognizant of the danger of developing “tech for tech’s sake.” It’s why we consulted as extensively as we did, and continue to do so today, taking part in community, government and academic disaster management initiatives at very opportunity. Without exception, the responders we’ve surveyed praise the platform’s ability to coordinate response, enable communications and even save lives. This feedback from the first responder community was what really pushed us to take our concepts forward as a start-up: for us, it was a chance to turn our 6.8 x 109+ vision into reality.

As of September 2009, two of us went forward on the project full-time, recruiting a team of developers and graphic designers along the way. To date, we have finished rounding out the development of the CiviGuard platform, assembled a rock-star panel of advisors, (including Bob Dolci, head of NASA-DART and Dr. Paul Auerbach, lead for patient coordination efforts following relief efforts in Haiti), incorporated as a C-Corp, launched in late March at O’Reilly Media’s Where 2.0 Launch Pad, which highlights “innovative and promising” location-based technology start-ups and are now moving into pilot studies and field tests.

By way of a reality check, we have been honoured by the enthusiastic response from the disaster management community, and see it as a validation of our technology that we have been invited to keynote at the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo on technology and government in Washington, DC at the end of May. As fellow co-founder and CiviGuard CEO Zubin Wadia put it, “It is tremendously fulfilling to be realizing our mission: building platforms for the protection of human life in times of crisis.”

So could your smartphone in fact save your life? Reports from the devastating events in Haiti have already shown that at least one person managed to save their own life with his smartphone. One is a good start – but there are millions more every single year, and we are hopeful that we have a solution. It’s what drives us.

It is also why for us, the CiviGuard platform is just the beginning. The issues that remain to be resolved in a disaster are too numerous to count, although the needs for better collaboration, communication and coordination remain the same. What if could we do for emergency medical response what we are doing for civilian notification and guidance?

All I can say for now is…we’re working on it. 😉

Earthquake Image Source: Digital World Tokyo