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FEMA Strips Down to Reach Survivors with Cell Phones

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, April 28 2010

Craig Fugate is a government administrator distinctly unwilling to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When it comes to pushing out a essentials-only mobile version of FEMA designed solely to serve people facing disasters or coping with their aftermaths armed with perhaps little more than a cell phone in their pocket, that means rolling out a site even before untangling the mess of government technology systems and contracts that make it impossible to redirect iPhones, BlackBerrys, and other smart phones straight to m.FEMA.gov, the way that scores of other sites do every day. "I really pushed the idea," FEMA director Fugate told me this morning, "of 'Guys, good enough.'"

FEMA's new mobile portal, launched this morning, has the courage to please just one type of customer: survivors, or people scrambling to be survivors when a hurricane or earthquake strikes. Brent Colburn is Director of External Affairs for FEMA. "It's really addition by subtraction," Colburn said. The emergency agency deduced that the people most likely to connect with FEMA on a mobile device are those in need of good advice, right away. What do to before and after a disaster, from floods to wildfires to tsunamis, is boiled down and presented on m.FEMA.gov -- critically useful information if you're waiting in line at Home Depot buying window boards (the mobile FEMA app recommends 5/8-inch marine plywood) or evacuating with little more than a BlackBerry and car charger (avoid coastal roads after earthquakes, they advise).

For now, survivors who need to apply for FEMA assistance need to call a central phone number. By June, says Colburn, they'll be able to do it through the app.

Fugate describes the full FEMA.gov website as a Swiss Army Knife. In an emergency, all you might need is a can opener, but it takes a brave administrator to admit that some of what your agency does is less than essential. Anil Dash is Director of Expert Labs, which works with government to build useful online engagement. "I love the simplicity of it," says Dash. "There's a sort of confidence to knowing that you can make editorial decisions about what to show to people." When hurricane season strikes, Colburn explains, information on how to cope will take center stage.

Fugate and Colburn explain why FEMA.gov can't simply redirect to the mobile site when it's detected that the visitor is using a mobile device as complications with the technology systems already in place in the agency. "It is a problem we're working on," said Colburn. In the interim, the main FEMA hub will have a redirection button, signs and brochures in disaster areas will carry the m.fema.gov tag, and Colburn holds out the possibility that the main site will default over to the pared-down version when large disasters strike.

Katrin Verclas is a mobile expert who runs MobileActive.org. Verclas suggests that the FEMA mobile site is a positive first step, but one that could benefit from "some UI love." Translation: the user interface could be better optimized. "There is no logical sequence to navigate through the tips," said Verclas. "And 'How to Apply for FEMA' aid is super-wordy and cumbersome to navigate."

FEMA's Fugate is perfectly comfortable in saying that this m.FEMA.gov is good, and also not perfect. "It's not a finished product," he says. "It's really an incremental step." But for someone caught up in a disaster, it might be exactly the can opener they need.

Related: techPresident's interview with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate on listening to social media in times of disaster, and an interview with Anil Dash on listening to social media to make government better at what it does.