Here's the type of mobile application from the federal government that can actually make a difference: m.fema.gov, the new mobile disaster response site from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Craig Fugate, FEMA's director, asked the agency's in-house web team to develop it. It's spartan by design: the information it will share is deemed to be essential. The regular FEMA website will remain the central gate for the agency's other customers -- governments, first responders and the press -- but the mobile site will be FEMA's first tool dedicated to helping individuals.
FEMA's Brent Colburn says that by the end of June, users will have the ability to register directly for federal assistance after a disaster. And, of course, the app itself will be updated with real-time information about current conditions, shelters and where and how to get emergency help.
What happens if all the networks die during a disaster? Obviously, the site won't work. But one can imagine numerous scenarios where home-based networks would be cut off, either because the broadband connections are down or because homes are destroyed or people have been evacuated -- and a basic EVDO or 3G connection is all that remains. The real test of this app will be whether (and when) FEMA can integrate its information with information from first responders and state and local officials. Cities have their own emergency management text alerts -- here's hoping FEMA finds a way to create that interoperability that is so vital for a smoother response to a major disaster.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.