Two Colorado developers built an app to track the state’s raging wildfires, using the power of crowdsourced social media to keep people connected in emergencies.
As their hometown burned, Robbie Trencheny and Scott Siebold created Waldo Canyon Fire Tracker to help fellow Colorado Springs residents stay informed about the fire’s velocity. WaldoCanyonFires.com displays all #WaldoCanyonFire tweets and pictures of the nearly 20,000-acre blaze, continually updating the information so people can make evacuation plans in real-time.
Trencheny, who lives five miles from the blaze, told CNN it took 45 minutes to build the Web-based app, which people can reach from PCs as well as mobile phones.
“Many communities are kind of still back in the 1980s or 1990s as far as the Internet and social media are concerned,” he said. “This app is a way for them to find out relevant stuff from Twitter or other services, whether or not they use those services themselves.”
Trencheny’s Fire Tracker app joins a growing host of emergency services using social media and crowdsourcing to keep people safe.
Twitter has become increasingly important as an instant, unbiased news source especially during emergencies like Japan’s earthquake and Midwestern tornadoes. Facebook is also useful in helping families find missing members after disasters.
During the 2011 Vancouver riots, Twitter and Facebook users created accounts to coordinate clean-up volunteers and catch possible perpetrators, demonstrating the power of social media in mitigating disaster.
And after Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast last year, the American Red Cross, National Weather Service and Department of Health and Human Services convened to explore ways social media can spread health and disaster alerts. As a result, the American Red Cross created an Android app where people can register their locations after a disaster and take a crash course in first aid and CPR.
Meanwhile in West Virginia, the Department of Homeland Security is testing the crowdsourced “Suspicious Reporting Activity” app, which encourages users to share videos and photos of possible terrorist activities. A similar app at the University of Maryland lets students send live videos to police, helping to assess dangerous situations and capture evidence all at once.
Crowdsourced apps like these are becoming more popular as emergency organizations realize their potential to gather real-time, on-the-ground information. Trencheny’s creation fits into this bigger trend, and even local officials are embracing the creation, which may soon become standard in other Colorado towns.
“We’re currently reaching out to fire departments and other agencies helping to fight the Colorado wildfires and provide relief services,” he said.
Facebook has also emerged as a key clearinghouse for public information and data during disasters and emergencies, helping people inform loved ones of their status during the tornados that tore apart Joplin, Mo. The social media site recently explored the possibility of a national disaster alert system, testing out a service in Japan earlier this year. A feature appears on a user’s page when an emergency hits their area. Users can click the “I’m Safe” button, instantly notifying friends and family they are unharmed.
Trencheny plans to update his app’s mobile interface, add a map and import Flickr photos, barring his own hasty evacuation from Colorado Springs. The Fire Tracker app has various bugs and cannot draw data from Facebook, which is a closed system, unlike Twitter’s public feed. But for a program built in under one hour, the fire-fighting app does its job and may save lives by consolidating the power of social media.