Check-In’s with a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response

This is the second post in my check-in’s-with-a-purpose series. The first post looked at the use of check-in’s to coordinate activist campaigns and street protests. The check-in’s series builds on Ushahidi’s free and open-source check-in service (CI) slated to launch in just a few weeks at SxSW 2011.

So how might organizations and local groups be able to use CI for disaster response? In three ways: (1) preparedness; (2) coordination; and (3) evaluation.


When you walk into a disaster area, say following an earthquake, you don’t want to be swamped with all kinds of information imaginable. You only want information relevant to you and your responsibilities in a given geographic area (demand side versus supply side). CI provides an easy, intuitive interface for this. You check-in when you want additional info about the area you are in.

This is similar to the idea of geo-caching, hence the reference to preparedness. You embed (or pre-populate) a given map with relevant structural and event-data for a given area. By structural data, I mean physical infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, etc. Event-data simply refers to nearby incidents. New data could be regularly embedded into the map (via geo-RSS feeds) to provide the latest event-data available. When you check-in, CI provides you with information and updates relevant to your vicinity and profile. For example, if you’ve added “health” as a tag on your profile, CI could prioritize health-based information when you check-in, including the location of other health-workers and their contact info.

There is another equally important angle to preparedness when it comes to check-in’s. Mapping infrastructure vulnerable to disasters is common practice in disaster risk reduction projects. These can be community-driven and participatory, giving local communities a stake in building their own resilience. In one such project, local communities in neighborhoods around Istanbul mapped infrastructure vulnerable to earthquake damage, e.g., overhanging structures like balconies. They also mapped local shelters, possible escape routes, etc. CI could be used for this type of crowdsourced, participatory mapping. Crowdfeeding would then simply happen by checking-in. The sign “In case of emergency, break glass” would become “In case of emergency, check-in.”


What about coordination? Keeping track of who is in a disaster area, and where, is no easy task. A check-in service would go a long way to addressing this coordination challenge. Call it instant mapping. Disaster responders would simply click the check-in app on their smart phones after they land in a disaster area to check-in. Each organization could set up their own check-in service to coordinate their staff with instant maps. Check-in deployments could also be project- or cluster-based.

In addition, an open check-in deployment could be set up for all responders. A separate CI deployment would be especially useful if hundreds of volunteers decide to fly in. They could be tasked more efficiently if they first checked-in. Doing so would provide coordinators with access to individual profiles with listed skill sets and contact info, much like a LinkedIn profile. Disaster responders and volunteers could also check-out once they leave a disaster area.

A check-in service could facilitate a number of other coordination challenges. Finding missing persons after a disaster has always been difficult, for example. One way to let others know you’re ok would be by checking in. Doing so would prompt the CI service to provide you with the latest on the disaster that took place, information on nearby services and who in your own professional or social network is in the vicinity long with their contact info. This could also be a way to coordinate corporate social responsibility projects in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Large companies with employees wanting to help could simply check-in to their CI service to get information on how to help.


Check-in’s could also be used for evaluation and accountability purposes. Once you’ve accomplished a task, you could quickly check-in with an update, which would leave a digital trace of your accomplishment. Or say you’re on your way to a food distribution site and drive past some newly flooded houses, you could quickly check-in with that information to update everyone else on your network. CI can also be used with badges and points, allowing people to develop a track-record of their work in a disaster area.

Some Challenges

There are of course some challenges in using a CI service for disaster response. Keep it simple. This is perhaps the most important point. One could very easily go all out and add countless features to a CI service. Such is the beauty of open source software. For disaster response, however, the trick will be to keep it simple and not try to turn CI into a solution for everything. If data coverage isn’t possible, then a check-in service should allow for SMS-based check-in’s. This could be done by using SMSsync. Another challenge will be to provide a seamless way to check into multiple CI deployments at the same time and for these to be interoperable. For example, if I’m with WFP, I should be able to check-in on the WFP CI and have my check-in appear simultaneously on the Food Cluster CI, OCHA CI, etc.

If you have ideas about how a check-in service could be used for disaster response, or recommendations on what would make Ushahidi’s CI system more useful, please do add them in the comments section below. My next post in this check-in’s-with-a-purpose series will describe how a CI service combined with gaming can be used to catalyze civic participation and engagement across a range of activities.

18 responses to “Check-In’s with a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response

  1. Dar Patrick,

    I like this breakdown. There is a real problem in transmitting data mapped in risk reduction projects to the disaster responder community. OCHA is attempting to respond to the need with Data Preparedness Files, but this needs to be a joint effort, among organizations and across countries. The challenges are immense, but the potential for improving response is great.

    While you use one way of framing coordination, thinking in terms of response and how responders interact by task is another, additional aspect. One of the challenges is the division between emergency and ‘early recovery’ or ‘reconstruction’ responders. The multitude of roles has always been one of the greatest conceptual barriers for me, personally, in trying to imagine how to link people in meaningful ways. The way these roles overlap with one another is complex, and of course when you arrive in a new scenario with a multitude of responders unfamiliar with one another, the challenges multiply.

    Finally, more work needs to be done in terms of evaluation analysis. Monitoring and evaluation is another area where the potential is great, but so are the challenges. One of the biggest value-addeds at lowest cost might be linkage between different types of standards to provide systematization of needs or damage evaluations. I have been frustrated about duplications in data collection on this front, in particular. But having a common data platform which identifies shared questions could be a great tool.

    There are two other areas which all of these link to but which are not specifically mentioned: project monitoring and gaps analysis. These are in many ways a culmination of the coordination and evaluation tasks, but mapping out the full process to accomplish these two goals would probably be helpful in identifying how to integrate the whole kit and kaboodle in a way that provides a net simpler solution.



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  3. Hi Patrick,

    Great post. It is great to see a lot of similar thinking out there about individuals and organizations “checking in” and “checking out” of given emergencies (e.g. Gisli’s recent post: I have been thinking along the lines of people having “Humanitarian Profiles” just like you have a FB, LinkedIn, or Twitter profile. I don’t believe that this profile would have to reside on one tool/site, but rather be open and sharable across tools. Having said that, I know that ReliefWeb already has over 140,000 registered users (with basic profiles) and are seriously considering the Humanitarian Profile idea (with check-in/out, tags, etc) as one of their top priorities after launch……perhaps if Ushahidi (or anyone else) is interested, the work could be done together? (They are working on Drupal 7).

    OCHA has developed two proof-of-concept mobile tools in Geneva in these areas. They were rudimentary so not the right place to start (and they include passwords so not really great to openly share). The first was a check-in/out tool that built for Symbia, connected to the OCHA 3W and allowed the user to download the entire contact list onto their phone. The second was an “around me” like application built on Android — based on your location, you could see contacts or projects (within a specified distance) by cluster and/or by organization. I will try to get the screen captures/ppt uploaded into Google Docs soon and share the link in another comment.

    Perhaps we could touch base (as you suggested) soon?


    • Hi Andrej,

      Many thanks for your comments, happy to get on a Skype call at any time, just say when. Re Gisli’s post, it comes several weeks after the public announcement of CI but Gisli makes no reference to that even though he tweeted about the blog post at the time. Strange. In any case, I think his version might run against the idea of keeping the check-in feature simple.

      Happy to explore collaboration with ReliefWeb on the check-in’s feature. Would you like to set up a conference call with the respective parties? Would be great to see the screenshots of the prototypes built.


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  16. A clearly written article. I would like to stretch the remark about the challenge of simplification. It seems to me that this aspect could really lead to a high potential of danger if not taken seriously. Maybe some of you have also seen this newest southpark- episode. In this episode, the school is organizing the communication between school and students with an interactive surface called „IntelliLink“. Therefore even the process of calling the scool nurse in an emergency situation is a complicated and way too complex struggle with the user interface. I think they made a good remark on that point.

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