Govt's DisasterWatch: the '9/11 of apps'

Govt's DisasterWatch: the '9/11 of apps'

Summary: The Australian government's new DisasterWatch application for smartphones is so slow and badly implemented that it could put lives at risk, according to experienced software developers.


The Australian government's new DisasterWatch application for smartphones is so slow and badly implemented that it could put lives at risk, according to experienced software developers.

(Credit: Australian Government)

DisasterWatch was launched by Attorney-General Robert McClelland yesterday to provide "quick and easy access to information about emergencies and disasters". It aims to reduce the number of callers to the Triple Zero emergency service who are simply seeking information.

"DisasterWatch gives the 4.5 million Australians who currently own smartphones another way of receiving emergency warnings and finding disaster-related information," McClelland said in a media release.

But developer Leslie Nassar has evaluated both the iPhone and the Android versions of the app, and found it slow and confusing. It's not even clear whether the app does or does not provide emergency warnings.

"It's painfully slow on my home internet connection on a weekday night, so how will it perform during an actual emergency? Over 3G, or, God forbid, GPRS/EDGE?" he said to ZDNet Australia.

"The attorney-general's site infers that the app can be used to receive warnings, but the iTunes page for the app says it doesn't, while running the app displays said warnings front and centre. So which is it?" Nassar said.

The Australian Emergency Management website is silent on the issue.

"Confusion in the design of an official disaster-information service is a critical flaw," Nassar said.

Nassar's criticisms also included: poor geographic filtering and prioritisation, no geolocation and only having one data feed for each state.

"Now, I may be mistaken, but the last time I checked, Western Australia is pretty big," Nassar said.

"You can't 'favourite' a region, or apply your own filters, so a coastal wind warning has the same precedence in the app as a scrub fire."

Data caching is also an issue. "If you've been monitoring a fire nearby, and you lose your connection, not only will you miss out on updates, but you can't even view the information you've already downloaded," he said.

"The HTML files bundled in the app have this tag for which I offer no comment: <meta name=Generator content="Microsoft Word 12 (filtered)">.

"This is just awful. I feel like it's the 9/11 of disaster apps."

Developers Keith Ahern, chief executive officer of Mogeneration spin-off Oomph, and Rob Manson, co-founder of MOB, support most of Nassar's comments.

"It's largely useless, mostly due to its terrible usability. I'm not too concerned about the caching; out-of-date cached information could be a very bad thing," Ahern said.

"All in all, it's obvious experienced mobile developer and user experience [UX] people were not used for this app."

Manson agreed that the app was slow, and described the information design and overall UX as "pretty rough".

"The warning versus non-warning info should be distinguished visually. 'Favourites' is just plain broken. The design, UX and typography is 'challenged', to say the best," he said.

"You could also definitely improve the way it loads and stores this information. Basically, it just loads a big set of RSS feeds whenever it starts (and I assume periodically). But again that would require additional work that may not have been budgeted for.

"We've had similar issues with some of our client apps. We know exactly how to make this syncing and caching seamless, but it's not an out-of-the-box thing, and many clients just want to pay for 'good enough'."

DisasterWatch is little more than a shell that fetches HTML from the Australian Emergency Management website, according to Nassar, who said that deploying the app as a mobile website would have been preferable to building an app.

"Everyone loves apps. They're an easy-to-hit, feel-good KPI. But, in an emergency, folks need access to timely and relevant information quickly. In the time it takes to go find and download the app on iTunes, they could have opened in their mobile browser, found the information they needed and acted on it," he said.

Ahern and Manson disagreed.

"Being an app means it has the potential for push message alerts which would be very useful — however, I suspect that's not on the cards," Ahern said.

"This isn't just 'shoving a web page into an app'. This is 'extending an app with the web'. If you know what you're doing, and you do this for a concise reason, then it's definitely a valid strategy," Manson said.

"This app, even though it's definitely broken in places, pretty much delivers [on the need to reduce calls to Triple Zero]...It is slow, and the data and network management seems pretty ad hoc. But it's specifically this type of tuning and system design that customers won't pay for."

"Would someone really expect any iPhone app to save their lives? I mean, really?!"

The Attorney-General's Department told ZDNet Australia that the prioritisation and geographic filtering of information in DisasterWatch reflects the information provided by the source agencies. It said that the app wasn't designed to issue warnings, but rather to increase access to existing public information via a mobile device, which may include warnings.

It also addressed the app's speed of operation.

"The slow response is likely to be due to factors such as the bandwidth speed in the user's area, rather than the application," it said.

Updated at 5.22pm, 9 December 2011: comment added from the Attorney-General's Department.

Topics: Android, Apple, Apps, Google, Government, Government AU


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • I was referring to what the app delivered, not what is possible, or what the potential is there in an app. Obviously the potential of what you can do is higher with native code than in Mobile Safari.

    DisasterWatch doesn't do push notifications, nor is there any indication that they intend to do so in the future. What they delivered was a bunch of HTML, and if all you're doing is pushing HTML around, then there's a better place for it: in the browser.
  • The application also gives different timestamps to the articles than you see on their websites.

    I'm looking at an article called "Well done NSW SES cadets" (vital disaster information of course...) and the application lists the time as 1:37, while the SES website has it published at 2:37.

    A critical difference if you're trying to judge how recent information is during an emergency.
    • I wonder whether someone's content management system or web server doesn't understand Daylight Saving Time?
      • That's the issue I'd imagine. The real problem beneath this whole sorry mess is the fact that the various agencies don't publish their information accurately enough to be used in an application like this.

        The problem isn't just that they've thrown together an RSS feed aggregator with a grandiose name, it's that the raw data they're using is rubbish.

        Rubbish in, rubbish out.

        I've tried to do things like this with other government agencies / departments before (aggregate data feeds in healthcare for example) and despite all the published government standards on interchange formats and meta data etc... at the end of the day the quality of the data is poor. Very poor.

        Last summer there was a bushfire not far from my house. The rural fire service website had no relevant information, even though their helicopters were dropping water overhead... the local road traffic authority was the only site I could find with timely information on what was going on.
        • Well . . . the app is a' really simple' way of presenting the existing public information on emergency management agency's websites, if you read the info pages on the appstore and market it clearly states that the intent is to make emergency management information more readily available to smartphone users. There is no warning function suggested and it's made obvious that it shouldnt be so regarded. There simply isnt, as glengyron intimated above, the capability to provide real time, accurate, localised, emergency information. Full stop.
          The first iteration reflects the inconcistencies in how emergency management RSS feeds are categorised timestamped and formatted. it will get better, every agency involved is positive about the app and is talking. For the initial iteration however, the requisite was that the data used had to be already publicly available, so G in G out. but do expect better prioritisation and filtering.
          But the end result is more accessibility for mobile users, and better presentation than a mobile browser. Later this week there will be a website blog opened up to discuss what ideas/options there are to improve the app and we'd love the best and worst constructive critiscims/suggestions that people can provide. I'll post the link.
  • You can say what you like about the technical side of the app, but as a user I think it's fantastic and I've had no problems with it regarding speed or usability. I think once the hysteria has died down and users give it a go, people might see that it is a useful mobile tool to get a glimpse of what's going down all over the country. If you were in another state on holidays, you could go in and see on any given day what's going on. I've noticed that it links you to websites like the Bureau of Meteorology - I hardly think that's rubbish information!
    In fact, I've just gone in to look at Queensland where some of our family is, and I notice a severe thunderstorm warning issued by the Bureau. I have called the family and told them to get this free app loaded into their mobiles. Really handy stuff, especially as some of them are out and about and may not know about it.
    There's also CFA Victoria and other such sites. Not sure what the problem is. I think some of these whiney reviewers may wish that they'd come up with the idea themselves. We should be glad that we can now get mobile information about events and disasters. Like any app, you sometimes won't have coverage enough to download but that comes with the territory surely. I thought that was a given with apps.
    The other thing is that perhaps people should modify their expectations - an app is not going to put out a fire or stop a flood but it might give people information that would help them make decisions based on facts. I 'm guessing that fire guides are different in every state and territory - linking to the fire agencies is really useful to pick up information about fire readiness. And that's what people should be doing instead of hoping that someone will come and rescue them I think. The app is a great development and should be encouraged. Good stuff!
  • I haven't used Word to build a webpage since 1998. You'd think a developer of what should be an enterprise-grade application should know how to boot Notepad.
    Mel Sommersberg
  • "The slow response is likely to be due to factors such as the bandwidth speed in the user's area, rather than the application,"

    WTF? How much bandwidth does this application need? Stop hosting everything on your website and start caching things locally. This is where having a "real" app really helps out. If you had everything cached locally you wouldn't have any where near as bad performance, you could refresh in the background, keeping the interface running nice and smooth for the end user while that happens, then it wont matter if it takes 2 seconds or 20 seconds to get your new RSS feed.