• Written by Winona Azure
    24 May 2023

Using an ATM cash app during the Haiti 2010 disaster. Photo: George Koprowicz.

As Akvo contemplates a role in the emergency aid sector, mobile phone use is increasing in disaster relief, likely because more people already use them as their primary communications tool. About 68% of people in the developing world have mobile subscriptions, according to the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, while only 21% have internet access.

Funding in the mobile phone disaster programs are increasing as well. In 2010, as a result of the Haiti earthquake disaster, The Gates Foundation backed a $10m initiative to spur the use of cell phone banking to speed aid and recovery efforts. A more recent initiative by the British government is investing £48.5m (Department for International Development funding) into a scheme over three years to explore how technologies like smartphone apps, video games, and Twitter feeds can help survivors of disasters.

Mobile disaster apps take off

Disaster-minded smartphone apps, in particular, are gaining ground in disaster zones. An article by the American Red Cross has shown that 20% of those surveyed have used apps to aid them in a disaster. One reason apps are gaining in popularity is because of their access to real-time information. It takes mainstream media outlets up to 30 minutes to provide event information, which can seem like an eternity when someone has critical needs. Plus, apps are mostly free. They can also assist both the disaster victims and the emergency responders trying to help them.

As a developer, it is wise to know what platform to build your app on. There are several apps in the iPhone, Android, and Mobile Web formats that cater to both urban and rural populations. However, Android apps have the advantage of serving more people, since an Android phone itself is less costly, therefore most popular. iPhone apps are utilised second (mostly in developed nations), with Mobile Web as the third most used platform.

How can apps help?

When a disaster hits, several immediate survival concerns take hold of victims: securing shelter, food, water & sanitation, medical aid, finding your loved ones, and accessing funds. While apps differ for the regions they were designed for (urban, rural, developed world or underdeveloped), the concepts behind the apps are worth considering for inclusion in future app development.

Now let’s review some disaster apps!


Mobile disaster app: hazard alerts

Even before a hazard hits, it is helpful to know its scale and severity, so you know what to expect and can be prepared. Disaster Alert (iPhone and Android) by the Pacific Disaster Center is an app that contains interactive maps of active hazards happening around the world. This includes earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires, volcanoes, man-made hazards and more. It lets you choose a preferred time zone and location, as well as automatically updates every 5 minutes. Other similar alert-based apps, such as Real Time Warning (Android), send you push notifications when a hazard hits your area.

Disaster Alert app keeps you updated, real-time, with global hazards. Photo: Pacific Disaster Center

Mobile disaster app: medical help

Injuries happen suddenly, sometimes, in the event of a disaster. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait around (hours or days) for help if your mobile phone is with you. First Aid (iPhone and Android) by the American Red Cross offers a straight-forward first aid guide that gives simple instructions on how to deal with a range of mishaps like bleeding, burns, or broken bones. It also provides planned routes to shelters in your area where you can receive more sophisticated medical attention. This app pre-downloads the guide (as do many of the disaster apps), in case the network is down and internet connections are not possible.

First Aid app screenshot. Photo: Redcross.org

Mobile disaster app: finding people or being found

Some apps can be used by both the public and aid personnel. ReUnite (iPhone) by National Library of Medicine helps people who have become separated, find each other. You can either search for a person or report yourself and location into the database. When a disaster zone is still very active (i.e. earthquake after shocks or continuous flooding), people can get separated all too easily. A similar app to this, but for Africa’s residents, is Refugees United (Android).

ReUnite screen shot. Find your loved ones or help victims find theirs. Photo: National Library of Medicine.

Mobile disaster app: emergency responders plan

SituationWare (iPhone and Android) by Ackdev Inc. is an app made by and for emergency responders, risk managers, local governments, and other aid personnel. It fosters inter-agency communications using real-time maps, group text messages, Tweets, and other social networking to create assessments on the ground, arrange resource deployments, and create an overall coordinated plan to manage the disaster.

SituationWare screenshot. Photo: Ackdev Inc.

Other mobile disaster apps worth mentioning

  • Outbreaks Near Me (iPhone and Android): Real-time disease outbreak information.
  • Olalashe (Android): Sends an SMS to all of your emergency contacts in your phone.
  • Tunemark Radio (iPhone): A radio tuner accessing thousands of international radio stations.
  • Need Comms Now (Android): Tracks cell phone and wifi signal strength in areas with damaged infrastructure, making the best location available to other users. Not yet released.
  • M-Pesa: An award-winning mobile money transfer app. Used in Africa, Afghanistan, and India.
  • WISER (iPhone, Android, more): Assists first responders in Hazmat incidents with substance identification support, containment and suppression advice, and medical treatment information.

SMS use in a disaster

Widespread app use is relatively new in disaster zones, but SMS (text messaging) has been used in the last decade by governments and aid workers to send alerts to communities in the event of a crisis. Some organisations to take note of are:

  • TextToChange: Works with organisations to set up SMS projects for social good.
  • FrontlineSMS: Has helped many developing nations with sensitive communications outreach (elections, agricultural market prices, and independent news outlets) to the public, including the Haiti 2010 disaster, working with Ushahidi to report disaster information on the ground.
  • RapidSMS: Helps organisations develop communications programs. Past projects include health care, maternal/neonatal care, and emergency response.
  • Ushahidi: Uses crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability. Enables local observers to input information towards the creation of a interactive, shared map.


  1. Mobile Banking Could Be Global Health Tool. Talea Miller.
  2. Aid officials aim to use apps and Twitter as new tools in disaster relief. Robin McKie, The Observer.
  3. Gates backs cell phone banking for Haiti. Ina Fried.
  4. HHS Lists Top Disaster Apps For First Responders and the Public. Staff Reports.
  5. [Report] Developer Economics 2011 – Winners and losers in the platform race. Matos Kapetanakis.
  6. Pioneering better emergency communications in Haiti. IFRC.
  7. Disaster Apps and Mobile Optimized Web Pages. National Libraries of Medicine.