Contest Leads To HHS Mobile Apps

on June 18, 2012 at 4:00 PM

The Department of Health and Human Services is the latest federal agency to tap the creativity of the marketplace by running a contest to find the best products for their emergency preparedness apps.

HHS used a tool that is increasingly being relied upon by agencies to find the best mobile solutions, get the work done cheaply and make a device available to the public quickly.

It cost less than $25,000 for HHS to join the government’s mobile march with “Project: Lifeline,” awarded $10,000 for first place, and bReddi, that won $5,000 for second place. Both were launched on Facebook May 31.

“It turns out doing it through a challenge is a fast and efficient way to get what we needed. It took about four months. Then we decided to hold off releasing it until the hurricane season,” Dr. Nicole Lurie, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), told Breaking Gov.

The two apps meet HHS’s mission of providing tools for the public in the event of an emergency. The successful apps let users create and share personal preparedness plans, and track the status of their Facebook friends and relatives in disaster-affected areas.

The apps also allow users to print cards with a snapshots of their preparedness plans to carry in their wallets as quick references about what to do when a disaster strikes and to distribute the cards to family and friends.

“After disasters, a tremendous number of people use Facebook to post and share information, so developing a Facebook app that would help people establish social connections they’ll need in an emergency seemed a natural way to enhance community and individual resilience,” Lurie said.

Lurie’s tips for agencies launching mobile apps:

  • Analyze who your audience is and how it communicates
  • Figure out how an app can help meet your organization’s mission
  • Engage the market – crowd sourcing and competition are good tools to use
  • Work with partners and tap into staff at your agency, especially younger staff who may be at the cutting edge of social media

How to get started: HHS searched Facebook and didn’t find any personal preparedness apps, so it sponsored the Facebook lifeline app contest to bridge the gap, Lurie said.

The result: The two apps help people establish social connections and become better prepared for any type of emergency – from a car accident or medical emergency to a natural disaster or bioterrorism, Lurie added.

The latest mobile apps fit right in with the White House digital strategy unveiled last month by Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel to harness innovation inside and outside government and bring data and services closer to American citizens through mobile technology.

Project: Lifeline was developed by two young men who graduated from Brown University in 2011. The app itself has two primary functions: helping people plan for disasters, and organizing communication during a disaster.

The project is built around the idea of a “lifeline” – a friend that you can turn to for help in an emergency. The first thing the app does is help you pick your lifelines and create an emergency plan to share with them. Before any disasters hit, you’ll have thought out where to go if you have to leave home and who to call if you need help getting the word out to friends about your status.

Lifelines will be able to update a user’s status in an emergency status list and keep friends informed of their well-being. The app also helps users find resources that will teach them about disaster risks and how to keep them safe.

“Our hope is the next time there is a disaster when people turn to Facebook, they will have a tool that lets them stay in touch, collective passing information around that comes with a disaster,” said Evan Donohue, of Durham, N.C., one of the Lifeline entrepreneurs.

The second place project, bReddi, is the brainchild of SocialWellth, a startup in Las Vegas. It provides check lists for people to be prepared for a disaster – Is there enough water, food and flashlights. “I’m prepared for the hurricane, are you,” it asks on Facebook, said Greg Orr, who designed the app.

“We already know Facebook is used during emergencies. We’re just trying to harness that before an emergency,” Orr said. “And during an emergency, bReddi will send alerts out to your lifeline.

Among its features, bReddi pools feeds from various federal agencies on threat levels from hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes and safety alerts and allows a user to look up a threat level based on location.

“We’re all very excited to see what happens. There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Lurie said. “There will be more disasters and more need for people to have lifelines.”