Turning Smartphones Into Disaster Aids (Complete)

When disaster strikes, the smartphone in your pocket could be a powerful ally, helping you locate resources, navigate to safety, assist others, and contact loved ones, all while collecting sensor data to help emergency responders understand the unfolding situation on the ground. But today’s smartphones are prepared to do only one thing well during a disaster: run out of battery. We investigated Android support for a disaster mode allowing smartphones to prepare for and operate effectively during disasters.

Natural disasters should be an ideal environment for today’s ubiquitous smartphones, allowing them to put their power, connectivity, and sensing capabilities to a truly critical purpose: helping their user survive and escape, especially while traveling in an unknown rapidly changing location. Unfortunately, disaster environments challenge smartphones' core assumptions, requiring radical adaptation that today’s phones cannot perform. During typical operation, smartphones assume that energy is plentiful—​making sub-day device lifetime acceptable—​and that high-speed mobile data and Wifi networks are almost always available. During a disaster, these assumptions fail: power is scarce, the phone may need to last for days, and networks are down or overloaded. To compound the problem, smartphones face these challenges at the moment when they are needed most, since users are likely to be navigating unfamiliar routes to detour around hazardous areas, attempting to find or reassure loved ones, communicating with rescuers, and gathering data to reassess rapidly-changing conditions.

We explored new techniques enabling smartphone disaster mode, a setting similar to the familiar airplane mode. When a disaster is imminent, disaster mode helps users get ready, by preparing their phone and gathering data to identify vulnerable communities and individuals. When disaster strikes, disaster mode enables aggressive energy management, novel user interfaces, and new communication patterns, all working together to retain essential functionality while maximizing battery life. The YouTube playlist above contains videos by Geoffrey Challen, Sriram Shantharam, Chris Renschler, and Matt Adam discussing various components of the project.

As the culmination of the project our team participated in the White House-sponsored SmartAmerica Challenge and presented our results at the SmartAmerica Expo held in Washington, DC, in June 2014.

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Created 2/11/2016
Updated 2/28/2019
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