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DisastersBuilding disaster-relief phone apps on the fly

By Larry Hardesty

Published 1 October 2013

Researchers combine powerful new Web standards with the intuitive, graphical MIT App Inventor to aid relief workers with little programming expertise.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s (CSAIL) and the Qatar Computing Research Institute have developed new tools that allow people with minimal programming skill to rapidly build cellphone applications that can help with disaster relief.

The tools are an extension of the App Inventor, open-source software that enables nonprogrammers to create applications for devices running Google’s Android operating system by snapping together color-coded graphical components. Based on decades of MIT research, the App Inventor was initially a Google product, but it was later rereleased as open-source software managed by MIT.

With the new tools, an emergency aid worker — or anyone else, for that matter — could, for instance, build an application to monitor many different data sources on the Internet for updated information about the locations of ad hoc shelters, and display them all on a Google map. The app could also allow individual users to revise, annotate or supplement the information displayed in the map.

The researchers presented their new tools in a paper at the Workshop on Semantic Cities last month in Beijing. The MIT researchers on the paper — principal research scientist Lalana Kagal, graduate students Oshani Seneviratne, Daniela Miao, and Fu-ming Shih, and postdoc Ilaria Liccardi — are all members of CSAIL’s Decentralized Information Group (DIG).

DIG shares office space in MIT’s Stata Center with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organization that establishes Web standards like the hypertext markup language (html) and the extensible markup language (xml). Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor, heads the W3C, but in his capacity as 3COM Founders Professor of Engineering at MIT, he also directs DIG.

DIG’s focus is research that takes advantage of the standards developed by the W3C. The new app-development tool requires that the data it accesses be formatted according to the resource description framework, or RDF.

Feedback loop
RDF is the central standard of the so-called Semantic Web, which would, in effect, convert the Web from a giant text file into a giant database. RDF provides a simple way both to label data items at different locations on the Web and to describe the relationships among them. Where a standard Google search could, say, find Web pages on which the phrases “restaurant” and “Penn Station” appear — including e-books in which they’re thousands of words apart, or the website for a restaurant chain that happens to be called “Penn Station”