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Disaster app gets help without cell service

January 30, 2018

The Smarter app can connect people when cell service is down, to find lost relatives or ask for help. But crucial figures are opposed to the technology, and will need convincing before the app can hit the market.

A man holds a smartphone in his hands
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Klose

Storm Friederike wreaked havoc in Germany earlier this month, causing €1 billion ($1.2 billion) in damage and killing eight people. Train traffic was shut down completely, and many cities saw power outages during and after the storm. Many people were cut off from cellphone service because the hurricane-force winds of up to 203 kilometers per hour (126 miles per hour) damaged telecommunications infrastructure.

Fortunately, power and cell service came back quickly. But imagine for a second what would happen if an extreme weather event like Friederike shut down cell service for days at a time. There would be no possibility to reach friends or family to find out whether they're OK, and no way to call anyone to tell them you're injured, or to organize volunteers to fill sandbags during a flood, for example.

A team of researchers in Germany has come up with a fix for situations exactly like that: Smarter, or Smartphone-based Communication Networks for Emergency Response. Through the Smarter app, cellphones can pass on information via a virtual data-backpack without the support of a central network. You'd be able to send messages without having any service.

A game of telephone

"Normally you can't use your phone if there's no service," Ralf Steinmetz, part of the Smarter project and head of the Multimedia Communications Lab at the Technical University (TU) Darmstadt, told DW. "But smartphones can communicate with each other through their own Wi-Fi if you enable them to do that. Their chips are capable of this, just not set up for it right now."

The team behind Smarter includes colleagues of Steinmetz from TU Darmstadt, researchers from the University of Kassel and officials from Germany's Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK), which has previously participated in creating weather warning apps.

Read more: Saving lives with warning apps 

The team set up a large-scale exercise in 2017 to see if Smarter could do the job, with 125 people trying the app on specially prepared smartphones.

They were spread out across three abandoned villages in western Germany and used Smarter to call for help, contact loved ones or swap necessities like water and bandages through the app's bulletin board function.

With the help of Smarter, the would-be disaster victims' phones could pass on information from one device to another, from there to a third one and so on — if the phones weren't more than 200 meters (656 feet) apart. So Smarter won't help you in deserted areas.

Another thing to keep in mind: sending messages this way takes longer, so you won't know when your text or post will reach the intended recipient. Nevertheless, 70 percent of participants in the exercise still said they would download the Smarter app on their phone and use it in a real disaster.

Don't wait for disaster to strike

Ralf Steinmetz
Steinmetz wants politicians to help make the Smarter app availableImage: KOM/FB18/TU Darmstadt/C. Maul

Having an app like Smarter rolled out large-scale across Germany would improve communications during a natural disaster — or a cyberattack on communication infrastructure.

"Something like this fortunately doesn't happen too often in Germany," Steinmetz said. "But flooding or a cyberattack can't be ruled out and then we'd be in trouble. The more digitized our society becomes, the more vulnerable it is [to hackers]. Sadly, a disaster has to occur before people can really see what measures should have been in place. Maybe we can be smarter and prepare a little beforehand this time."

But there's bad news for those who want to start prepping right now: Smarter is not available in app stores yet. It wouldn't do users any good, either, since regular, store-bought smartphones aren't able to pass on information the way the app intends.

Reluctant manufacturers, service providers

"The technical basis is there; now we need to appeal to the phone manufacturers," the BBK said in a statement released on Tuesday.

Right now, some phones can share data directly, but only if the other device is from the same manufacturer. IPhones use the AirDrop technology for sharing, for example, but that only works between two Apple devices, not an iPhone and an Android device. The Smarter developers had to change the software of the phones used in the exercise to allow the app to work.

Mobile service providers are likely skeptics, too.

"The service providers want you to use their network, of course," Steinmetz said. "You could theoretically use [the Smarter] technology to call people without any service, if the other person is nearby."

Steinmetz believes it would be difficult to put pressure on Vodafone or Apple, so he and his colleagues are calling on politicians to step in. Just like a person is able to call police or firefighters without unlocking their phone, Steinmetz said, you should be able to communicate in a disaster when cell service is down. But that option is still a long way away.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker