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Disaster Victims Given a Mobile Way to Say They Need Help

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, July 19 2010

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, aka FEMA, has set up a way for people in disaster zones to register for assistance using their mobile phones.

Now, when people in disaster zones head towards the FEMA website from their mobile phones, they'll have the opportunity to register for government assistance in a process that should take something less than 20 minutes. It's an important update to the Federal Emergency Management's mobile presence that we profiled, at launch, back in April, and a demonstration of how even basic technologies when applied smartly to government can produce a meaningful impact on people's actual lives.

Translating government forms and checkboxes to the mobile interface has its challenges, and the disaster assistance process that FEMA has set up has its clunky moments. The splash screen, for example, asks a random question that the agency says is geared towards blocking out viruses and protecting user information. When I tried the site, my question was "Which of eighty, 16, Friday, blue, or John is the name of a person?," which, while rather a simple test, is somewhat awkwardly worded. Answered correctly, the user has to click through a handful of screens checking all the boxes on various legal requirements, such as government paperwork reduction notices.

That said, filling and filing a form on the new Disaster Assistance mobile site is a fairly trivial process, but it's one that can have big rewards for someone caught in a disaster. As for the obvious question of whether its smart to rely upon mobile phones in crisis times when they can, so often, fail in the best of conditions, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said at the initial launch of the mobile site that the disaster agency's experience has been, in recent disasters, that cell networks have demonstrated an encouraging pattern of staying up and running.

(One improvement to the core FEMA mobile site not being touted by the agency: people are redirected automatically to the stripped-down version of the agency website if they happen to be using a mobile device. That wasn't something that FEMA's online presence was capable of handling at launch, with agency officials pointing to various contractual relationships with technology vendors as impediments to doing the autoredirect. "It is a problem we're working on," said FEMA Director of External Affairs Brent Colburn at the time. They seem to have worked those troubles out in the subsequent four months.)

In the video below, just pushed out by FEMA, Administrator Fugate profiles the new tool. In our interview with Fugate back in November, the disaster specialist said that his interest was in using technology to try to solve problems "faster than the speed of government." On a personal note, playing with the new FEMA disaster reporting tool this morning in my air-conditioned office, an the image from a different time and place popped into my mind and stayed lodged there. It was New Orleans, 2005, just a few weeks after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, where I came upon a line of people -- men, women, children -- queued up outside a shuttered hotel that had been reconstituted as a FEMA disaster center, a chain of humanity that stretched for blocks and blocks under the hot Louisiana sun. Once inside, after waiting for many cases for hours, it took people only a few minutes to fill out the paper form that let the federal government know they were in need. It was inefficient, and the burden of that inefficiency fell on people who had been through enough. Mobile FEMA disaster assistance forms aren't everything, but they are a steps towards solving what for people in crisis might be the most important problem in the world: letting people in a position to assist know that they could use some help.

More from FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate: