2 Tech Tools for Emergencies from our Westgate Experience: Ping and Blood Donation

As we mentioned yesterday, it’s been a bit of a crazy few days in Nairobi. The full Ushahidi team met yesterday (many virtually, of course), and we talked about many issues surrounding the Westgate siege and our own tools. This lead us to then think through our skills and tools, and where we could be useful. Two thoughts came immediately to mind:

the Ping app: group check-ins during an emergency

There was a consistent problem in every disaster that happens, not just in Kenya, but everywhere. Small groups, families and companies need to quickly check in with each other. They need to “ping” one another to make sure they’re okay. It has to be something incredibly simple, that requires little thinking to use. People have been doing some stuff in this space in the past, the best like “I’m Ok” are focused on smartphone users, but we have a need to make it work for even the simplest phones. Our goal is to have this available for anyone globally to use.

The Ping App - a group check-in tool for emergencies
The Ping App – a group check-in tool for emergencies

“Ping” is basically a binary, multichannel check-in tool for groups. We’re putting the first version of it up at Ping.Ushahidi.com – here’s how it works:

  • You create a list of your people (family, organization), and each person also adds another contact who is close to them (spouse, roommate, boy/girlfriend, etc).
  • When a disaster happens, you send out a message for everyone to check-in. The admin sends out a 120 character message that always has “are you ok?” appended to the end.
  • This goes out via text message and email (more channels can be added later).
  • The message goes out three times, once every 5 minutes. If there is a response, then that person is considered okay. If no response, then 3 messages get sent to their other contact.
  • We file each response into one of 3 areas: responded (verified), not responded, not okay.
  • Every message that comes back from someone in that group is saved into a big bucket of text, that the admin can add notes to if needed.
Ping Notes, Features
Ping Notes, Features
Ping Architecture - rough draft
Ping Architecture – rough draft

Yesterday we quickly wireframed out a list of needs, some design basics, and an architecture plan (images above), got a rough product going on it (code is on Github). We now need to make it look better, so some designers are working up some stuff to make it work well on both phones and computers.

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks
Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Final touches are to add in; account creation, message send screen, archive old campaigns feature, wire into text messaging service (Nexmo or Twilio), and then testing it out internally.

If you’d like to help out, jump on the Github repo, and get in touch with us about what you can do.

Blood Donation Locations, and Needs

The Red Cross has been instrumental in mobilizing Kenyans these past few days. In the wake of this tragedy, thousands of Kenyans came out to donate blood or help those searching for their loved ones. The Red Cross team, understandably so,was overwhelmed, and most Kenyans were not aware of other blood centers around the country.

One of the most amazing guys in Kenya in any emergency is Philip Ogola of the Kenya Red Cross. He’s first on scene with great updates, but there’s only so much that one person can do. Now, the Kenya Red Cross itself has been doing incredible work, but they have a problem with a lot of their stuff still being paper and pen (and there’s another group working on a locally hosted database system to digitize this without putting real people’s names online, run by Nivi of eLimu). Another problem that they have is that the hospitals are running short on some types of blood, and are overwhelmed with others, as the Kenyan population comes out in full force to donate blood.

How can this be managed better, so that people aren’t turned away from some places and so that they know where to go for their type?

We set up a crowdmap deployment to map our all locations of blood drive centers, in an effort to match these areas with those willing to help at BloodDonationKenya.Crowdmap.com, either through blood donation, medical instruments or medical personnel.

Post-Westgate: Blood Donation Sites in Kenya
Post-Westgate: Blood Donation Sites in Kenya

How you can help:

  • We’ll need some help keeping the supply needs updated, so if you’re game to do that let us know.
  • We also need to start geolocating all of the places that you can donate blood and the times that they’re open.

It’s times like this where it takes a community of people to get things done. We’ve seen this already in action in so many ways, through food for tired workers, blood donations and money donations. In the midst of a terrible time, we also see the best of humanity shine through.

11 Responses to “2 Tech Tools for Emergencies from our Westgate Experience: Ping and Blood Donation”

  1. mark busienei

    Incredible and Inspiring!Some day I will put my contributions towards such a helpful and life changing project.Taking my time to learn how to code.#Passionformapsandinforgraphics

  2. Nothing can keep Kenyans down. I’m impressed with this level of practical innovation!!!

  3. Ping App – fantastic idea, go for it. I had a similar thought about a “mayday app” and the lessons from the maritime SAR environment. Patrick Meier encouraged me to write a blog post on the topic, which you can be found here (http://ilg.so/1a41i42). It is also posted on the CrisisMappers Google Group in an expanded form.

    It would be good to think about how these two ideas could work together. If your not OK then the next stage is to call for help.

    • John, thanks for the link, that was a good read.

      Ping works from the position of the one-to-many, someone in the family, unit or organization hits the button to get a simplified “roll call” of the members in that group. Mayday looks like it’s for that person who isn’t in a good position, and needs to send an alert out, so basically it the message goes the opposite way of Ping. Both are needed, and the type of use might require different tech tools depending on the scenario (thus radio for people in ships/boats.

  4. Love the idea, it’d be totally useful in California earthquakes. One thought, in a hostage situation, is there a way to ping people and ensure that the phone doesn’t make a noise when the text is sent?

    • Hi Nora, we think it’s just as valuable in California as in Kenya as well.

      We can’t do anything about it being a silent text message, I’m afraid, as that’s set on the user’s handset itself.

  5. Great work in developing these incredible systems that will no doubt be instrumental in Kenya’s disaster management.
    I would like to help out so who do I contact?

  6. It is exciting to see the team continuing to innovate in response to these needs. The work being done here is of international importance as is the continual refining of the processes that you guys are committed to.

    Is there any value in developing a risk-based route-finding app that takes verified risk or road closure information and routes traffic to destinations on the map, avoid known trouble spots? Perhaps linking with Waze traffic data etc?

    • @Urbanworkbench, thanks for the kind words. In response to your question on a route map, there likely is a need for that, but it would take far more resources than we have at Ushahidi to build/maintain it. Even this Ping app is taking us off of our other work for a week. However, what might be interesting is talking to the team at Waze and seeing if they’d consider doing an emergency routing app using their own data and tools. If you know someone there, we’d be happy to have that discussion.

  7. Brilliant work and thank all for doing it.

    Understand the need as have been through ourselves and with loved ones being directly involved in and out of touch for way, way too many hours in both the ’89 San Francisco earthquake and 9/11.

    Have also been thinking about this these past days. Power and network outages are often part of the scenario which cuts all communication and potential pings off. Having a last known location of a phone would help with SAR and piece of mind. Knowing that this is possible with smartphones, is it possible, do you think, to incorporate a last known location on simple phones?

    Hope this thought helps your team’s great work.