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Portland’s CivicApps Initiative: Crowd Sourcing for Crisis Management

The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.

By Jeremy G. Waen


In light of the Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown that happened in March 2011, governments are under even greater scrutiny regarding emergency management and disaster preparedness. Advances in information technology are serving as a double-edged sword for government. On one side information technology provides real-time assessment of damages, emergency response requests, and better resource distribution. On the other side, IT provides global real-time scrutiny, regional hysteria, and reactionary global economic changes. While governments across the world struggle to attempt to control the flow of information during crises, Portland, OR’s local government, through its CivicApps Initiative, is ahead of the curve. By embracing transparency and open source, Portland is empowering its public to create better IT driven emergency management tools and techniques. Background

Portland, OR lies along the eastern region of the Pacific Plate, the tectonic plate that defines the Ring of Fire. This same tectonic plate was responsible for two tremendous disasters earlier this same year: Japan’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11th and New Zealand’s magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch on February 21st. It is only a matter of time and odds before the western coast of the United States experiences a similar incident.

Local and regional governments are using these recent catastrophes to remind their public about the importance of disaster preparedness. Many cities are exploring new initiatives to prepare their communities for the next ‘big one’. While many governments are focused on budgetary shortfalls, the City of Portland is preparing through more unorthodox means.


In Japan, whose culture is renowned internationally for its disaster preparedness planning and training, the government was completely overwhelmed and underprepared for the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Reflecting upon recent natural and manmade disasters here in the US (Hurricane Katrina, the Nashville, TN floods of May 2011, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill), it is clear that the federal government alone is unable or unwilling to solely handle disasters of this magnitude. Thus the onus for disaster preparedness and community resilience falls upon the state and local governments.

Unfortunately, most state and municipal governments are so focused on immediate budgetary concerns that planning for long-term disaster preparedness falls to the back burner. How can local government possibly get ready for catastrophe on a shoestring budget?


Local governments need to get creative. By engaging with the local, technologically savvy creative class, governments are able to unlock an innovative wealth of new emergency management tools, strategies, and technologies that would otherwise be overlooked or considered unaffordable. The key to disaster readiness in this era of economic recession and information overload is Civic Engagement 2.0, civic engagement through web 2.0 technology. Many municipal governments including those of Portland, OR, New York, NY, and Washington D.C. are all pioneering ways to engage their resident creative class through the means of app development competitions and prestigious programs such as Code for America.

Figure 1: Portland’s developers busy at work during the hack-a-thon of October 3rd, 2010. Located in the foreground are Loqi.me creators Aaron Parecki (right of center) and Amber Case (far right). (Image taken by caseorganic on flickr.)

Portland’s CivicApps, a city sponsored app development initiative, is a particularly interesting example of how public and private sectors are collaborating to drive engagement through information technology. CivicApps includes a design competition that engages Portland’s hacker/developer community and promotes crowd-sourced solutions for leveraging open sourced public datasets to drive civic engagement. Apps range from public transportation trip planners, to neighborhood crime watch services, to cultural history archives, to emergency management. This initiative is proving to be surprisingly cost effective too. The initial round of competition produced between 20 and 30 innovative apps for the mere cost of the $20,000 set aside by the City to organize contests, hack-a-thons, and award prizes. It is estimated that the average cost for developing a single app ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 with great variation depending upon the complexities involved (Newberry, 2011).

One particular App designed during the second round of competitions within the CivicApps initiative, Loqi.me, won cash prizes for both ‘Most Useful App’ and ‘Best of Show’ categories and garnered attention from government officials and developers alike. Loqi.me is a cellular phone driven app for “Cross-Platform Group Messaging And Location Beaconing For Disaster Relief.” Features of this platform include: emergency GPS beaconing, multi-platform access and user subscriptions (SMS, AIM, Jabber, or Twitter), and Smartphone accessible maps for citizens and emergency response ground teams. According to the designers, “This application is a resource for citizens, medical teams and governments before, during and after disasters.” Loqi.me is a powerful resource that provides Portland’s community with the ability to spontaneously respond to crisis, be it caused by snowstorms or earthquakes.

Figure 2: Loqi.me’s mobile map of emergency GPS beaconing and regional resources. This map technology couples multi-platform data input with an easy to interpret Google Map’s based visual display allowing citizens and emergency response quick access.


The greatest barrier with any government initiatives that depends upon civic engagement is civic engagement. Especially in the case of crowd sourcing, where participation is voluntary, government must provide some very alluring incentives to get developers to engage. In this slow economy, most governments are unable to provide traditional incentives such as cash prizes, contracts, and employment. According to Skip Newberry, Economic Development Policy Advisor to the Mayor of Portland, OR, the small cash prizes connected to the awards were not the primarily motives for participants in the CivicApps competitions. Instead Portland’s developers are leveraging their involvement in CivicApps to launch their careers. For example, one participant of this competition, Max Ogden, ended up receiving national recognition and the prestigious ‘Code for America’ fellowship due to his involvement in Portland’s initiative.

Another potential issue facing local government usage of cloud based and Smartphone technology to aid emergency management is social equity. Applications such as Loqi.me should only serve to supplement traditional means of information gathering and resource deployment during crises because not all members of the public have access or knowledge necessary to utilize these newer tools. While not every citizen has access to ‘smart’ phones, Skip Newberry does assert that the penetration rate of ‘dumb’ cellular phones is still quite high, even in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Portland’s government is already looking to leverage this widespread use of mobile technology in times of emergency through services such as reverse 911. Nevertheless, Skip acknowledges with regards to citywide access to mobile technology for crisis management, “We do have a ways to go there.”


Though not created specifically to address issues of emergency management, the City of Portland, Oregon’s CivicApps initiative has proven to be a fruitful means for generating innovative, unconventional disaster preparedness tools. What is more, the crowd sourcing approach of CivicApps is an extremely cost effective means for developing this information technology. Finally, this open source approach is proving to be a successful conduit for Civic Engagement 2.0.

Municipal governments should follow Portland’s CivicApps example not only to develop technologies and platforms that help with disaster preparedness such as Loqi.me, but also to foster deeper levels of trust and communication between local government and developer communities. Will crowd sourced development of mobile apps to leverage open sourced public data be the 21st Century solution to streamlined disaster preparedness or will this means of information technology prove too inequitable or cumbersome for us in crisis?


2011TsunamiFireVehicles.jpg (JPEG Image, 2592x3872 pixels) - Scaled (11%). (n.d.). . Retrieved April 29, 2011, from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/2011TsunamiFireVehicles.jpg

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Loqi.me - Cross-Platform Group Messaging and Location Beacons for Disaster Relief. (n.d.). . Retrieved April 29, 2011, from http://loqi.me/pdx/welcome.php

Newberry, S. (2011, March 15). The City of Portland, Oregon’s Use of Information Technology.

Open Government and Civic Innovation on Display at Portland’s CivicApps Awards | Gov 2.0: The Power of Platforms. (n.d.). . Retrieved May 13, 2011, from http://gov20.govfresh.com/open-government-and-civic-innovation-on-display-at-portlands-civicapps-awards/


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