Microsoft unveiled a free mobile app on Jan. 16 called HelpBridge that is designed to act as a communications tool or a lifeline when a disaster strikes. HelpBridge is available now for Windows Phone, Android and iOS.
Developed by Microsoft Citizenship's Technology for Good program, the app provides smartphone owners with a mobile notification system in the event of a natural disaster. HelpBridge allows users to build and keep lists of friends and family members. When a mishap strikes, HelpBridge can alert those contacts en masse via email, Short Message Service (SMS) or Facebook.
It's a capability that can save time, perhaps even lives, during the chaos that surrounds a large-scale emergency. Microsoft's Disaster Response team's CTO, Tony Surma, is therefore encouraging users to take a few minutes setting up the app.
"When disaster strikes, you don't want to be fumbling with your phone and trying to find your mom's number. Spending a little time now can pay off in spades," said Surma in a company release.
A "few swipes" is all it takes to alert multiple contacts to a user's situation, according to Microsoft. While it can be used to set minds at ease ("I'm OK"), it also leverages GPS, a mainstay of today's mobile experience, to aid help-and-rescue efforts. "The alert can also give a user's exact location via their phone's GPS capabilities," informed the company.
HelpBridge arrives in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a massively destructive storm that hit the U.S.'s Northeast Coast in late October 2012 and affected millions in densely populated areas of New Jersey, New York and southern New England.
Sandy led to widespread power outages—some stretching into weeks—and numerous communications network failures, effectively imposing a communications blackout for many communities. The Federal Communications Commission estimated that Hurricane Sandy knocked out 25 percent of all cell towers in the 10 states.
Technology companies responded by pooling their resources and developing new disaster preparedness solutions. Wireless rivals AT&T and T-Mobile teamed up to allow their subscribers to roam across both networks to help plug holes in coverage. Google rolled out its Public Alerts services into Google Search and Maps, exposing the emergency warning and information platform to more users.
Sandy also led to an outpouring of support and charitable donations, a fact that influenced HelpBridge's development.
"People have been extremely generous donating their time and money after Sandy," said James Rooney, program manager for Microsoft Citizenship's Technology for Good. HelpBridge enables users to donate directly to the American Red Cross, CARE and Global Giving.
The app also lists opportunities for volunteering, in real-time, and helps users find agencies that are accepting resources, like food and other essentials, for their on-the-ground relief efforts. "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," added Rooney.