MIT builds disaster-relief mobile apps on the fly

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory 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 can 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’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.

Kagal, however, hopes that new tools like the disaster-response application she and her colleagues developed will accelerate the adoption of RDF.

“As people use these apps more, they will automatically generate structured data. And as there’s more structured data out there, there will be people building more apps to consume them, which will in turn generate more structured data,” added Kagal.

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