Berkowitz: Government should tap private sector apps in emergencies

Tools

Many governments use a mobile platform called SeeClickFix to help citizens report common problems like broken streetlights or graffiti. In emergencies like Hurricane Sandy, the tool can be especially useful, said Ben Berkowitz, co-founder and chief executive of SeeClickFix, during a Nov. 16 HowTo.gov webinar.

The town of Crisfield, Md., enlisted citizen volunteers to document storm damage using their smartphone cameras and a SeeClickFix app. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in Crisfield, it asked citizens to also document homes where residents had put white towels on their front doors to indicate that they needed help.

Crisfield's volunteers reported hundreds of incidents, Berkowitz said.

SeeClickFix made its services available free for governments that wanted to use it in Sandy's aftermath, and Berkowitz said governments should consider ways to tap other mobile tools during emergencies, especially since companies are often looking for ways to help out in recovery efforts.

Airbnb, an online tool that lets individuals rent out their homes directly to other individuals for short stays, is one example. Airbnb partnered with the New York City government to provide its service for free to Sandy victims who needed shelter and to others who had places to offer.

Ridesharing apps present another opportunity, Berkowitz said. They match car owners with people willing to pay them for rides, and that service could pick up some of the slack when transportation systems fail or are hobbled after disasters.

Berkowitz said the fact that all these tools work on mobile devices is crucial. Mobile devices are useful during storms because they're battery powered and because cell service often continues to work.

For more:
- go to the webinar on HowTo.gov (video and transcript available)

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