As many New Yorkers found last month when they received a terse mobile alert about a wanted suspect in a bombing, the process of getting information during an emergency is far from perfect. What's more, while the national wireless emergency alert system can be helpful for disseminating information during extreme weather and other kinds of emergencies, it can only operate if cell towers are working.
But what happens if typical means of communication are no longer functional? For three students at in the interactive design master's program at the School of Visual Arts, being unprepared for a disaster is a serious design problem. They would know. Elushika Weerakoon survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while Kohzy Koh and David Al-Ibrahim both weathered Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012.
"Sandy hit me pretty hard," Koh says. "I remember the hurricane coming and passing and me not realizing what was going on." Koh remembers taking shelter in his apartment building, like many other New Yorkers, with no way to communicate with the outside world or get updates on the storm. While Koh was fine, he began to think about what an elderly or disabled person who needed help would do in his situation. "The problem is that most of us only prepare for emergencies after they happen," he explained in a pitch video.
Based on their experiences, and the lack of emergency preparedness devices that are useful on a daily basis, the three created Innovation By Design student category. Rather than trying to change people's existing behaviors, Readi fits smoothly into the modern home while providing a way to access information in case of emergency. The design grew from an electronic device they had built for another class—a combination lamp, speaker, clock, and temperature reader—designed for every-day life. To make it useful in an emergency, they added an FM radio, national weather service radio, and a walkie talkie into the bottom of the device. During times of crisis, the gadget can be flipped over to reveal the emergency functionality.
The device has a soft-glow lamp that's battery operated in case the power goes out, with a separate siren mode. But mostly, Readi is for communication. The three envision users giving a walkie talkie to a loved one nearby and setting both devices to the same channel for easy communication if cell towers go down. Walkie talkies can also be used to find first responders. And having access to a radio if there's no internet is crucial for finding out what's going on and knowing when it's safe to venture outdoors.
While still in school, the three are interested in taking Readi to the next level with user test and research. Weerakoon wants to research emergency services design for her thesis next year. Her experience during Katrina—she and her family fled the city as the levies broke, leaving behind their home and all their possessions—informed much of Readi's design. "There was no communication. The cell towers weren’t working well," she says. "None of us is ever ready for something like that."