Smartphone Disaster Mode

Smartphone DiasterWhen disaster strikes, the smartphone in your pocket should be a powerful ally, helping you locate resources, navigate to safety, assist others, and maintain contact with loved ones. Smartphones can also use their integrated sensors to help allocate scarce response resources to the most vulnerable communities and individuals by collecting data allowing emergency responders to understand the unfolding situation on the ground. But today’s smartphones are unprepared to operate in a disaster environment, with associated energy-management and connectivity challenges causing them to fall far short of their potential. As part of the SmartAmerica Challenge we are developing Android platform support for a disaster mode allowing smartphones to prepare for and operate effectively during disasters. Operating effectively in a disaster environment requires fundamental changes to the software operating smartphones to enable a disaster mode, which must be present before the disaster strikes. These changes work together to complement disaster preparation and response apps which can be installed by users.


When disaster is imminent, or in disaster-prone areas, users will be asked to install an official disaster management application through public service announcements or emergency messages sent directly to their device. The app will begin collecting data to help identify vulnerable communities and individuals. Vulnerable communities may need to be allocated a disproportionate share of disaster response resources, such as first responders. The app will also help vulnerable individuals embedded in more resilient communities establish social networks to improve their chance of surviving. Information about resilience at both levels can also help guide individuals forced to make stay-or-go decisions. The pre-disaster period also provides time for the disaster response app to collect baseline information to allow alterations to the post-disaster environment to be detected. For example, establishing connectivity maps before the disaster can help identify areas that may lose service and detect failures after the disaster strikes. Monitoring human mobility patterns before the disaster can allow disaster-related changes to be identified later.

Once disaster strikes, disaster mode enables extreme energy-savings through intelligent management of device resources and apps as well as novel low-power user interfaces. It also ensures that loss of Wifi connectivity and potential overloads of the cellular networks do not cause rapid smartphone energy drain, as they do today. Disaster mode applies existing research on low-power localization and resource discovery to reduce energy consumption while allowing users to navigate out of the affected area and communicate with loved ones. We also incorporate peer-to-peer networking technologies to perform information propagation across disconnected devices and also help affected individuals form groups that can support each other as they escape to safety.


Power and Connectivity

Today’s smartphones are unprepared to operate effectively in disaster environments. Energy management is a particular concern, since battery lifetime on current smartphone models is already poor and specific features of the disaster environment–including heavy use, navigation features, loss of power, and poor connectivity–threaten to reduce it even further. We are investigating new energy management approaches to preserve smartphone operation as long as possible through efficient resource discovery, energy-efficient localization techniques, and low-power user interfaces. We are also making changes to the platform to improve user control over apps that are running during the disaster, with the specific goal of ensuring that background energy consumption is limited or eliminated entirely.

While cellular providers have worked to harden their networks to survive certain kinds of disasters, smartphones still encounter a very different networking environment than they are used to. Wifi access points will probably be down, since they are tied to the power grid; and while mobile data and voice networks may be operational, they are likely to be overloaded, meaning that using this infrastructure may frustrate users and drain their smartphones batteries further. To better understand the impact of disasters on cellular networks, we are studying the performance of cell networks during Superstorm Sandy. Better understanding network performance during disasters will allow us determine what new connectivity primitives are appropriate to include in smartphone disaster mode and how they should be implemented. It will also allow us to perform local simulations of disaster environments utilizing the PhoneLab testbed located at the University at Buffalo. A team of Android developers in the blue Systems Research Group at the University at Buffalo led by Geoffrey Challen and Karthik Dantu Karthik Dantu are implementing and testing the Android platform changes necessary to improve energy management and connectivity in disaster mode.

Vulnerability, Resilience and Reporting

We are also exploring ways to use data collected from smartphones to measure vulnerability at both macro (community) and micro (individual) scales. A team led by Chris Renschler at the University at Buffalo is analyzing location traces collected on PhoneLab to determine how to both effectively detect anomalies such as large storms and blocked roads, but also how to use location information to determine vulnerability on an individual level. Observing a person’s area and amount of travel can help determine their degree of mobility, access to transportation, and familiarity with areas and routes they may need to travel through to escape the disaster. Overall we are determining how to gather data from smartphones and to quantify vulnerability (and resilience) by feeding it in to the PEOPLES Resilience Framework developed by Chris Renschler. Geographic information is a key component of this model, but other challenges include using smartphones to measure the strength of each individuals friendships and social network, key aspects of disaster survivability. Once the disaster begins, we are coordinating with Jacqueline Kazil, formerly of FEMA who is developing a new API exposing disaster information to connected devices. We believe that smartphones can both benefit from this information to stay informed, as well as feed data back to disaster authorities allowing them to monitor rapidly-changing conditions.


Our team brings together computer scientists and geographers at the University at Buffalo in collaboration with the Federal Government.

Name Organization Role
Geoffrey Challen University at Buffalo Team lead and Android development
Chris Renschler University at Buffalo Resilience determination and geographic data processing
Karthik Dantu University at Buffalo Android development
Jacqueline Kazil Federal Employee Disaster API development


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