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Identifying end-user requirements for communication systems in disadvantaged environments

J. Menold, L. Weizler, Y. Liu, S. Bilen, and S. Miller
2015, IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference

Communication and information exchange are critical for effective response to emergencies and disasters. However, most existing communication solutions lack flexibility and are not robust enough in disconnected, interrupted, or remote communication environments. Traditional communication tools fail to meet the increasingly complex needs of both public safety and private industry workers during emergency response. The Department of Homeland Security has sponsored the Pennsylvania State University and MIT Lincoln Laboratory to develop and prototype a new communication solution to operate in these disadvantaged environments, defined herein as emergency instances in which cellular or other typical modes of communication are down. Previous research has explored the communication methods and the dynamics of information exchange on first response teams. This work focuses on comparing the needs of alternative users, defined as non-first response organizations such as the American Red Cross, with the needs of the previously studied user group (first response teams). Survey responses and interviews enabled the exploration of current practices, with an emphasis on identifying the differences and similarities amongst the various user groups. Low-fidelity and medium-fidelity prototypes were created based on the interview and survey responses and were field-tested in order to gather user feedback. Design recommendations emphasizing day-to-day use were then developed and assessed by the user groups. These recommendations tailor the communication interfaces to better meet the needs of a variety of users resulting in more efficient and effective emergency response.