It’s all about usability

Get it all working together.

I’m regularly telling people to stop looking at smart phones as a device that makes phone calls plus other stuff, and instead look at it as a hand held data device.  There was an RFI/RFP a few years ago for a vehicle-based system that could track location, give directions and send messages.  Nearly all the respondents came back with multipart systems… this part does this, that part does that.  Today, the answer is simply to use a smart phone. 

That answer comes down to the same challenge that all technology has – the interface with the user.  As capability and complexity in technology increases, it must also be paired with easy-to-use interfaces that can predict needs and have more autonomy to reduce the load on the person.  Kludgy systems might be workable with a staff that uses them every day where they get the experience and learn where things are.  Part-time or spontaneous staff will not be able to effectively use these systems in a disaster situation without a significant loss of time spent for on-the-job training and problem resolution.

I know I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that we’d deploy Nextel phones with push-to-talk capability but the vast majority of users never used the PTT capability because they didn’t use it in their day-to-day life.  They held the phone, saw a 12 button phone dial pad and used it like a regular phone.

Netbooks and tablets evolution is an area I watch for the next big change.  It was a huge shift when full size desktop computers and monitors were replaced by laptop computers for shipments to disasters.  In the space of one desktop computer, we now ship a dozen laptops.  Two netbooks or tablets can ship in the space of one laptop – if they can do all the same work required by the user.  Larger cellular devices are encroaching on the same space as netbooks and tablets.  They’re approaching the same functional space for an easily mobile device that is not a primary computer.

This will have a big impact on disaster response in the next five years based on three changes.  I’m predicting the applications used by disaster response organizations will be “mobile ready” in the next few years.  The FCC broadband proposal and the impact on NG911 and first-responder communications will become clearer (for better or worse) which will allow the next technological leaps to be taken.  Finally, the cost of smart phone and table devices will have dropped to the point where most disaster response organizations can afford to deploy them en masse. 

Maybe I’m just being overly optimistic since disasters and technology is what I do, yet this seems to be a great time to have this niche job.  There are some big thinkers and technology evangelists coming together just like all this technology is getting more mobile.

[A few more thoughts two years later are posted here.]