New app allows disaster victims to alert loved ones
Penn is conducting research in the technology and financial sectors to improve communication in the aftermath of a natural disaster
October 3, 2011, 9:34 pm·
When a natural disaster hits: stop, drop, roll — and break out your cell phone.
Thanks to SMS PersonFinder — a text-message interface designed by Engineering senior Kevin Conley — victims of natural disasters will be able to alert their loved ones that they are safe by simply sending in a text message with their name, location and condition to a publicly searchable database.
This summer Conley won the grand prize at the ‘Random Hacks of Kindness’ competition on the Google Campus in Mountain View, Calif., for his idea.
“I was inspired by a current Google project, Google Person Finder, which was rolled out during the disaster in Haiti to help survivors let people around the world know that they are okay,” Conley said. “I realized that Google Person Finder only works if you have an internet connection, which you might not have given the circumstances.”
With this in mind, Conley assembled a team of 15 to create SMS PersonFinder, and built the application in 24 hours for the hack-a-thon.
After Conley and his team conducted their presentation— simulating a natural disaster in Mountain View — Jeremy Johnstone, co-founder of Random Hacks of Kindness, selected the app for the grand prize. Conley’s app “leveraged a wide variety of technologies and was built in a modular fashion which allows for swapping out pieces … easily, something critically important for a project used in a disaster response setting,” Johnstone wrote in an email. “Despite the above, it was simple and robust enough that I felt confident using it myself when responding in a natural disaster setting.”
According to Johnstone, Google — as well as the crisis response community at large — has expressed long-term interest in Conley’s project.
Last spring, Wharton junior and Daily Pennsylvanian staff photographer Rachel Bleustein found herself caught in a natural disaster — the earthquakes in Japan. Though virtually unaffected by the 9.0 earthquake in Honshu, Bleustein felt the aftershocks about 45 miles away in the form of a 6.2 earthquake in Nagano.
To let her loved ones know that she was safe, Bleustein Skyped with her immediate family and posted a Facebook status.
Bleustein said that she would have found SMS PersonFinder useful if it was around at the time.
“I had a Japanese phone but I didn’t have internet and the networks were down for some parts of the country,” she added. “Everyone was calling my parents and grandmother asking if I was okay … it would have been nice to let them know all at once.”
Penn is also working in the financial sector to improve current methods of responding to a natural disaster.
At the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, established in 1984, “a nexus of people and projects are devoted to furthering the practical understanding of how to manage situations of risk,” according to the center’s website. The center’s Managing Director Erwann Michel-Kerjan develops strategies and policies for managing and financing extreme events, including natural disasters and optimal catastrophe risk sharing.
While Conley is working on the technology side of the natural disaster field, Kerjan is currently collaborating with Wharton junior Mike Chen regarding a project within the financial sphere.
The two are trying to find a way for catastrophe bonds — risk-linked securities that transfer this risk from a sponsor to investors — to become more efficient, Chen said.
Chen said that he and Kerjan are in talks with the government of an African country to revamp their insurance market with the addition of catastrophe bonds.