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The app gap, in disasters like Hurricane Sandy

Screenshot from a promotional video of SmartCrowdz, "a free, web and mobile platform that allows organizations to market, manage and monetize events involving a lot of people and a lot of tasks."

There are two key questions in a disaster: What victims need and where they need it. But can an app get multiple relief organizations talking?  

Dan Diamond is a family physician near Seattle and he’s done disaster work in Haiti. He’s at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, to do a little shopping, for a few good app developers. 

He’s trying to recruit “some brains to help those of who are first responders during disasters in order to do our job better,” he says.

Brad Griffith’s company, SmartCrowdz, is a social media network that was created to coordinate flash mobs and manage big outdoor concerts. Its advertising makes this claim: "SmartCrowdz lets you reach out and join forces with all your participants. Everyone knows their role. Everyone's on the same page."

“Our company is smart crowds,” says Griffith. “We build an event management and marketing platform."

As for the marketing platform, Griffith isn’t trying  to sell gauze and blankets during a disaster. But the same app could be used for merchandising when it's deployed outside a disaster zone.

Putting disaster management into the hands of app developers has its own risks.

Brandon Brewer spent 22 years in the Coast Guard and now works as a disaster relief consultant. “The biggest concerns I have is that they are not fully tested,” he said. Brewer remembers the app that listed handy emergency numbers.

“They were listed alphabetically. And the first Command Center in Alaska started getting distress calls from all over the country via the app," he says. "Because for whatever reason, people were justing hitting the Go button before selecting, you know, 'I'm near New York. I'm near New Orleans.' So we don't want to send helicopters from Alaska to rescue somebody who's really in Long Island Sound.”

That mess up may have been have been the product of app developer culture: Try things, knowing some ideas will work, some will fail. Hit and miss ... Not the best strategy during a disaster.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
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