Portsmouth kids design 'killer' app for emergencies


PORTSMOUTH — A proposal for a smart phone app that would directly connect local residents with first responders and others during emergencies has drawn praise from the director of the town's Emergency Management Agency (EMA).

“I want it right now. Where can I buy it? That’s a killer app," said John King following the presentation at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the fire station Saturday.

But the proposal he heard didn't come from a computer programming whiz or a national emergency preparedness expert. It was made by five local kids, all under 14.

They make up Robo Storm, a neighborhood robotics team from the Prospect Lane area that will compete in the FIRST LEGO League State Championship at Roger Williams University on Saturday, Jan. 11. The team became eligible for the championship round by taking first place in "Robot Performance" during a qualifier on Dec. 8.

There's more to robotics than designing and building automated droids, according to Darlele Sullivan, the team's adult mentor. The other part of FIRST LEGO League's challenge this year was a research project that forces kids to think like engineers or scientists, she said.

“This year the theme is natural disasters,” said Ms. Sullivan.

The team came up with the "disAPPster," a smart phone app that the team hopes will help local residents and first responders during natural disasters and other emergencies. As a precursor to their formal presentation of the app to judges on Jan. 11, members Saturday gave a sneak preview to Mr. King and Richard Talipsky, who oversees the local EMA’s internet communications team.

The EMA relies heavily on social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to monitor situations during storms and other emergencies. The Portsmouth EMA, with about 572 followers on Facebook and “a couple of hundred” on Twitter, was among the first in the state to have an internet presence, said Mr. King.

However, most social media apps are used to share information between friends and family and not the wider community, according to members of the robotics team — 13-year-olds Seamus Sullivan and Ruthie Wood and 12-year-olds Spencer Dellenbaugh, Isaac Solly and Christian McNeilly. Their app is different, they contend.

“When the natural disaster strikes, disAPPster lets you keep in touch with the authorities, emergency workers, utility workers and most importantly, family and friends — to let them know if you’re OK, if there’s a problem, what it is, and if you can help," said Isaac.

The team presented several different scenarios in which its proposed map-based app would improve communications between residents in need and first responders.

“Say you’re at home and your power goes out. You want to let other people know this is important,” said Isaac. Users can report that power outage from the app, he said, as well as any other information that would be important to responders — such as if a tree is seen leaning against a utility wire.

During its research the team met with a National Grid representative, who said workers never know what to expect when they respond to a call. The app addresses this problem as well.

“You can also take a picture so that National Grid workers can see how severe the problem is, so they know whether it’s urgent to fix," said Isaac, adding that comments can also be posted under the photo or text.

Prioritizing situations

Mr. Talipsky was impressed with the picture-taking feature of the app. “We had one instance when we had a power line down and (National Grid was) trying to communicate its status and they kept getting misinformation on where the line was, what the status was. If we could have gotten a picture of that, it would have cleared up all of those problems," he said.

The app would also let residents communicate that they're OK during a storm, and/or they're available to help others. For example, a user could live out of state but have a grandmother in Portsmouth whose home is getting battered in a storm, Isaac said. The app will allow a user to connect with someone who could help out, he said.

Both Mr. King and Mr. Talipsky said they liked the app's ability to filter out real emergencies from ones that may have been exaggerated, which would help first responders prioritize situations.

“The fire department has 10 things they’ve got to do and they only have resources for five," said Mr. Talipsky. "Which one do we go to first? We had that exact scenario play over and over again during the big storm.”

“That’s triage, and triage is the unpleasant reality of emergency management," added Mr. King. "Everybody wants something and everybody’s not going to get something now, this instant.”

Making app a reality

Team Robo Storm is using a tool developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called the App Inventor to create a prototype of the app. But funding and professional development is needed to make disAPPster a reality.

“It definitely takes some serious programming. Ruthie loves programming, but there’s only so much they can do without having that horsepower of a server behind them," said Ms. Sullivan, adding that FIRST LEGO League could possibly help with the app's development.

The robotics team has already sold Portsmouth EMA on the concept. The kids' presentation so impressed Mr. King that he and Mr. Talipsky offered to connect them with other emergency management people and first responders in hopes of drumming up more support. They said the app would be invaluable during emergency situations.

“Right now we get everything from our Twitter feeds, but we have to manually plot it," said Mr. Talipsky. "Right now we just have this hodgepodge of information just written down and posted on a map manually. This would do it all automatically. We need this right here now, in this room.

"If this works, this is really going to pay off.”


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.