Saving lives … one mobile app at a time

When disasters strike, information sharing becomes key for both first responders and the people affected on the ground. Over the past 10 months, two members of ...

When Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast of the United States in 2012, thousands of Americans had no power and little or no way to communicate with family, friends or emergency personnel.

The next time a storm of that magnitude hits, Derek Frempong and Jacqueline Kazil hope the Disaster Response and Recovery projects they’ve been working on as part of the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program make disaster response faster, more efficient and, in turn, help save lives.

Kazil said a sense of urgency and timeliness is essential to improving disaster response.

“You want to help individuals get back to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible, so they can continue on with the lives they were living before they were affected,” she said.

Federal News Radio takes a closer look at the work of these fellows as part of our special report, Solving Our Nation’s Toughest Challenges: The Presidential Innovation Fellows.


Frempong has been working with the Department of Energy to develop a mobile application called Lantern that provides information about power outages and functioning gas stations.

Derek Frempong, Presidential Innovation Fellow

The app currently is in the testing phase but will launch before the hurricane season begins in June 2014.

“His project, the Lantern app, is very awesome, and I’m very excited about the work that they’re doing at DoE,” Kazil said.

Frempong said the mobile app focuses on core needs that were necessary for survival during Hurricane Sandy.

“They needed to know about the status of the electrical grid. Or, in more layman’s terms, ‘If my power is off, when is it going to come back on?'” he said.

Frempong said during Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, many people left their homes because they had no electricity. To find out if power had been restored, they had to physically drive back to their homes and flip the light switches.

“That’s inefficient and a waste of time,” he said.

Those affected by Hurricane Sandy also struggled to find operating gas stations that were stocked with fuel but also had powered pumps.

“If the electricity is knocked out, the gas station may have fully stocked tanks, but if there isn’t any electrical power to the pump itself, you can’t run your credit card, and the mechanism inside doesn’t pump the fuel,” Frempong said.


Kazil is working at FEMA on a mapping workflow called GeoQ, which quickly pulls in images of damaged areas for first responders and emergency personnel.

The GeoQ project originated in the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and is now a cross-agency project between NGA and FEMA.

The application pulls images from the Civil Air Patrol.

“Retired airline pilots fly over a damaged area and they take pictures. Then those pictures will be pulled into GeoQ,” Kazil said. “Then we use crowdsourcing techniques to assess the damage and road conditions and other things.”

(Watch the video below to meet Adam Dole, Jacqueline Kazil and Derek Frempong – three of this year’s Presidential Innovation Fellows. Story continues below video.)

Social media and crowdsourcing

Once Lantern and GeoQ launch this summer, both applications will make active use of crowdsourcing and social media.

“People on the ground, in the area that’s affected, are the best source of data and information about what resources are available, what’s working and what’s not working,” said Lena Trudeau, associate commissioner for the Office of Strategic Innovations at the General Services Administration. Trudeau also oversees the PIF program.

Lantern uses crowdsourcing to find information about operating gas stations during disasters.

“You have the ability to tag a gas station as ‘operating’ or ‘not operating.’ So, if you’re at a gas station and they just ran out of fuel or the pumps just lost power … then you would just tag the gas station as inoperable,” Frempong said.

That crowdsourced data then comes back to Lantern’s servers. Based on an algorithm, Lantern will display a green, yellow or red status for gas stations within a radius of a user’s location.

Jacqueline Kazil, Presidential Innovation Fellow, works at GSA Headquarters in Washington.

Lantern has set up a partnership with the Weather Channel and to broadcast three Twitter hashtags during a natural disaster: #PowerLineDown, #GotFuel and #NoFuel.

“If you see a power line down, you can take a picture, tweet it and use the hashtag,” Frempong said.

The data from Twitter will be pulled and filtered into the Lantern app.

Rather than relying solely on the Civil Air Patrol for images, GeoQ will use photos posted on various social media sites to assess damage during a disaster.

“The thought is to pull in feeds from Twitter, Instagram and Flickr, because a lot of those images are going to come in faster than an airline pilot can fly over a damaged area. People who shelter in place are the first ones on the ground, and they often share with their family and friends, ‘I’m OK. Everything’s OK’,” Kazil said.

These tools allow the government to empower and engage citizens “to take control of their own future and to have a voice,” Kazil said.

That control makes for a faster and smoother transition back to normalcy post- disaster.

Expanding over the border

In the initial stages, both GeoQ and Lantern will provide information to Americans about federal and local disasters.

Once the apps further develop, the code will be open sourced so that emergency personnel living internationally can utilize the technology for disasters in their area.

“Folks in other areas can take that code and apply it to their region,” Frempong said. “They can customize or tailor it to their area.”

Lantern will launch in June at the same time that Frempong and Kazil finish their terms as Presidential Innovation Fellows. Frempong said a Round 3 fellow, which will be chosen in the months ahead, will pick up the project and continue to work on the application.

Frempong said the focus will be on best practices to leverage social media and crowdsourcing during a disaster.

“I feel proud as far as what I’ve done so far, and just to be able to see somebody take that to the next level, I’ll be very excited to see what they come up with … and just see it continue to grow and build,” he said.


Inside the Presidential Innovation Fellows program: A Q&A with the White House

How the future of health care lies behind a Blue Button

Data innovation, crowdsourcing on the horizon for Innovation Fellows program

Video: What is a Presidential Innovation Fellow?

Photos: Meet the Round 2 Presidential Innovation Fellows

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