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

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.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

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 em.gov.au 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.

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