If an earthquake hit Los Angeles, how would the media cover it? That was the question that kept Gabriel Kahn up at night during his tenure as Los Angeles bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
“We had a lot of reporters … but access to information was a challenge. We didn’t want to have to wait two hours for the sheriff’s department to hold a press conference to get the details necessary to do our job,” Kahn said.
Then came the epiphany: Why not let citizens do the reporters’ jobs for them? As Kahn put it, “What we needed wasn’t more reporters … we just needed to turn regular citizens into reporters.”
The timing was perfect, as Kahn had just started working with the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC. What resulted from the idea is Crisis Connection, a website and smart phone application that allows citizens and emergency responders to exchange vital information in the event of a disaster.
Kahn demonstrated the capabilities of the Crisis Connection website at the 2012 Innovation Summit, which was presented by the Annenberg Innovation Lab on March 30. During an emergency, a user can quickly upload a picture or video along with a brief description of his or her predicament. The person’s location is automatically pinpointed on a map using geolocation.
Users can also receive notifications of new posts and use this information to organize search parties, offer supplies or simply post their location and contact information should anyone request their help.
Though people already have a number of options if they want to offer or receive help during an emergency, Kahn believes Crisis Connection offers important services.
“911 is a great, fantastic tool, but it doesn’t work in a widespread disaster because if 500 people are calling 911 every minute, the dispatcher can’t handle that volume,” he said. “They don’t have resources to dispatch to everyone who’s calling.”
Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Crisis Connection is devoted solely to disaster and emergency situations, reducing the amount of information users have to sort through.
Crisis Connection is still a work in progress. Shangsong Ji, who worked on the Website Team until he graduated in 2012, said the app still needs several improvements.
The Homeland Security Advisory Council, which helps the Innovation Lab with fundraising, recently secured a $600,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation.
[Correction: A previous version of this story stated the grant from the Ahmanson Foundation was $60,000. The foundation gave $600,000.]
The money from the grant, which will be doled out over a two-year period, will give Kahn and his team the resources to proceed with “rigorous testing of the product in a real community like USC,” according to Kahn.
Though the team is currently using USC as a testing ground for the app, Kahn says the eventual target consumers will be “communities that face constant environmental threat,” citing particular neighborhoods along the Mississippi River that face periodic flooding.
The app does not yet have a formal release date yet, as the team has just begun discussions with the Dept. of Public Safety and other USC officials about how to incorporate the project into the USC community.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got a lot of things in place before we actually test it,” Kahn said.
The online version of Crisis Connection can be found at CrisisConnection.info/live.