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Public sector

New Microsoft disaster response app

The homescreen of HelpBridge disaster response app on a Windows Phone

Microsoft has released a free new mobile app that is designed to make it easy to connect with friends and family during a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane.

HelpBridge, which is available in the US for Windows Phone, Android, and iOS, also enables users to give time, money and resources to support relief and rebuilding efforts.

The app, which was developed by Microsoft Citizenship’s Technology for Good programme, lets users build a list of friends and family they would want to contact in an emergency.

With a few swipes, they can let all those contacts know via SMS, email or Facebook if they’re OK or if they need help. The alert can also give a user’s exact location via their phone’s GPS capabilities.

HelpBridge also provides three easy ways to support relief and recovery efforts in the wake of a disaster, according to James Rooney, programme manager for Microsoft Citizenship’s Technology for Good programme.

People can use the app to donate funds quickly to a broad range of relief agencies including the American Red Cross, CARE and Global Giving. They can also find out what goods and resources relief agencies on the ground need – making sure they send items such as tents, gloves, and pet food to the right places.

Finally, HelpBridge lists real-time volunteering opportunities posted by relief agencies, enabling users to directly or indirectly support relief efforts with their time.

The simpler we can make it for people to let others know if they are fine or if they need assistance, the more likely they are of being able to get that information out

Gisli Olaffson, NetHope
During recent natural disasters such as the ones that struck Haiti and Japan, Microsoft’s global response team saw technology spin up to help people connect with friends, family and relief efforts, Rooney said. But those technologies tended to be built quickly, were specific to the disaster region, and became obsolete in the weeks and months after a disaster.

Rather than recreate technology after each disaster, why not build something ‘disaster-agnostic’ and have it in place no matter where or when disaster strikes? That was the initial spark behind HelpBridge.

The team focused first on helping people connect with loved ones through their smartphones, which have become key communication tools when disaster strikes, said Gisli Olaffson, emergency response director for NetHope. “The simpler we can make it for people to let others know if they are fine or if they need assistance, the more likely they are of being able to get that information out,” he said. “Microsoft’s HelpBridge mobile app is a great addition to the tools people have for reporting their needs and their status following any natural disaster.”

Microsoft also worked with a range of relief agencies and nonprofits and talked to partners such as the Mobile Giving Foundation, VolunteerMatch, Aidmatrix and Network for Good.

The app also uses Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud platform.

Rooney hopes the app can help facilitate giving when disasters strikes. He pointed to the millions of people who have responded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which will likely be the most expensive disaster in US history.

“People have been extremely generous donating their time and money after Sandy,” he said. “HelpBridge could be a simple way to bump up donations or help people find new volunteer opportunities. If we can direct consumers to give easily, that’s really what it’s all about.”

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