Citizens helping citizens

Information is a vital commodity during an emergency and technology can be a powerful tool for getting it into the hands of those who need it when disaster strikes. Many people around the world have mobile Internet-enabled devices with access to social networks, and these can be useful in getting help for themselves and their neighbors, whether they are next door or on the other side of the world.

Leveraging technology to bring communities together and provide this help is one goal of Microsoft’s Disaster Response program. Technologies from Microsoft as well as from industry partners can enable citizens to become their own first responders before traditional fire, rescue and medical teams can arrive on the scene. These solutions can help both skilled and unskilled volunteers around the world assist government and non-governmental organizations with life-saving efforts.

    • During major disasters, the Microsoft team activates the Azure-based ReadyReach Preparedness Portal, a centralized, cloud-based website where response teams can share maps and logistics quickly and easily, and broadcast information to disaster victims about shelter, aid, and evacuation routes. When deployed, the portal can provide access to current news and events, interactive maps, safety routes, assistance, and other resources, as well as how to support nonprofit agencies. It can also pull in relevant Twitter and Facebook feeds, such as those being updated by local government response teams or police departments.

    • Skype can be a valuable tool for making video and voice calls to anyone else on Skype, plus instant messaging and file sharing. A free OneDrive account, which can be accessed from any computer or mobile with connectivity, can help citizens protect important documents like birth certificates and insurance documents and provide access to them when a computer is not available. OneDrive also makes files searchable in a digital notebook like OneNote. 

    • HealthVault helps citizens gather, store, and share important health information for themselves and their families by creating an emergency profile to manage and track medical contacts, allergies, medication, immunizations, and health conditions. Through the site medical providers can securely log in and see a full picture of family history and medical needs.

    • Mobile applications such as HelpBridge can give citizens a way to quickly reach out to friends, family and neighbors during a crisis and to offer help where it will be most useful. The app, which is available for Windows, Android and iOS devices, simultaneously sends e-mail and SMS text messages to individuals selected by the user, and posts a message to Facebook letting everyone know “I’m OK,” or “I need help.” GPS coordinates can be included in the message to let recipients know exactly where the sender is. The information can help neighbors become de facto first responders by letting them know who needs help in the immediate area.

    The app also gives those outside the disaster area a way to help by connecting them with disaster relief organizations with information on volunteering in relief efforts as well as with options for text-to-give donations, contributions through PayPal and for contributing goods. HelpBridge – currently available in the U.S. only – is powered by Windows Azure and our partners, Aidmatrix, GuideStar, Mobile Giving Foundation, Network for Good, and VolunteerMatch.

    Because information is critical to effective disaster response, enabling a global community of technical volunteers to assist in gathering, managing, analyzing and disseminating information can also aid relief efforts. Collaboration platforms give volunteers with varying levels of skill a way to lend a hand from anywhere in the world.

    The large amounts of data generated during an emergency through social media must be turned into useable information for first responders and relief organizations. This job can be crowd-sourced to relatively unskilled volunteers to determine what information applies to the disaster, its level of importance and who could use it. Once this first level of evaluation is done, relevant information can be passed on to specialists for a more throughout analysis. Like a cloud service, crowdsourcing can quickly accommodate spikes in activity.

    At a higher skill level, virtual hackathons can be used to rapidly develop open source technical solutions for responders in the field. To sustain these development efforts and to provide a home for solutions already developed, Humanitarian Toolbox was formed in 2013. The open source projects are maintained in the cloud with team development tools like Visual Studio Online to give developers a single shop to access all code and work items, helping to expand the pool of volunteers contributing to the effort. The Humanitarian Toolbox has so far worked on three applications for NGOs, a Crisis Check-in application to track volunteers on site, mobile access to training resources, and a browser toolbar to deliver curated news links to those in the field.

    Please watch this space for more news and information about technology advancements that can help keep citizens safe when disaster strikes. To ask questions, share ideas, or receive more information, please contact us at or @MicrosoftPSNS.

    Tony Surma
    Chief Technical Officer, Microsoft Disaster Response

About the Author

Tony Surma | Chief Technical Officer, Microsoft Disaster Response

Tony Surma is responsible for the worldwide team and program at Microsoft focused on delivering technologies and technical assistance to communities, responders and customers both in response to natural disasters and in support of proactive resiliency... Read More