Creative discussions with Crisis Informatics researcher Sophia Liu

Sophia Liu from the Crisis Informatics group at University of Colorado, Boulder has visited our research group for a few days. It has been very valuable to been able to discuss research with her and listen to some new perspectives based on a grass-root or citizens perspective. Sophia is a PhD-student working under the supervision of Professor Leysia Palen in the world-leading research group on information technology use and crisis response from a citizens perspective.

Today when we discussed the use of mobile phones during disaster events, we touched upon the frequent question that often is made that “….in times of large scale crises, the mobile phone network will be down, then there is no use of mobile phones.”
We agreed that the key problem with such a statement is that it only views the mobile phone as something you make a call with. That is no longer the case. People use their mobile phones to make pictures, make video recordings and even as a diary with digital post-it notes. This continues even if the network is down. Experiences for hurricanes in the southern-part of the US as well as from other events has shown that even if the network is overloaded and is not accessable for verbal communication, the network has enough capacity to allow SMS. In those cases where even SMS is not possible, people use their phones to make pictures and videos that is uploaded later or at other locations where the network capacity allows.

So, the key issue here is: We as technology designers should not only focus on new and innovative applications that is dependent on network availability but also: Focus on new features that would provide partial capabilities in conditions when the network has a more infrequent availability. Having in mind that people also use netbooks and laptops in combination with their mobile phones open up some new design directions that very very few has explored so far. I do believe that the western world has much to learn from mobile application designers in places for example in development countries where an infrequent availability of the network is part of everyday life.

An exciting research topic could be “Designing rich media mobile applications for unreliable and fragmented mobile network connectivity”. A mobile phone starting to become a high-capacity mobile computing device. From an HCI, CSCW and Software Engineering perspective, the opportunities for real and world-class results are just waiting to be uncovered.

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