Harry Trimble
Sep 19 · 7 min read

Following our discovery into fires and floods, our team is testing different ideas for making more people visible in emergencies. Last week we tested our first ideas with four people living in a tower block in Cardiff similar to Grenfell tower. We also tested ideas with three first responders in Cardiff and a community centre right next to the tower.

Here’s what we tested and learned:

What we tested

We had two ideas we tested with people in Cardiff. Both the prototypes were based around a story about a large fire in the fictional city of Wellport. We made paper prototypes rather than digital ones, as we were testing the overall value of our ideas and not the usability.

1. Proactive text message

The first idea is sending a text to everyone in an area affected by a fire, flood or other large emergency. This is possible using two methods called cell broadcast and location-based SMS messaging. Both these methods were used in 2013 by the Cabinet Office and three local authorities to trial sending public emergency alerts.

The hypothesis we were testing is people are more visible in emergencies if they’re texted about support available.

In our prototype someone receives a text message a couple of hours after being evacuated from their home and away from the fire. The message eludes to what support is available and how they can find out more.

Next in the prototype someone chooses to click a link to find out more about what support is available. A web application asks what support someone needs. In our imaginary example someone chooses cash for living costs. Next someone gets some FAQs about cash support, followed by some questions about who needs support and how they’d like to be contacted. The prototype finishes by telling someone how much money they’ll get and where they can collect it from. The hypothesis we were testing here is assessing someone’s needs can be fully automated.

2. Community registration

Our second idea is people registering that they need support in community spaces like mosques, churches and youth clubs. A member of their local community who someone is familiar with can request extra support on their behalf. This idea was inspired by the insight that some people in emergencies evacuate to these spaces rather than council-run rest centres.

The main hypothesis tested in this prototype is people are more visible in emergencies if they can register for support in community spaces.

In our fictional prototype someone is requesting extra support through Nadiya, a member of a local mosque. Nadiya requests extra support using a web application she logs into using two-factor authentication. Nadiya was trained to use the tool by a local Red Cross Emergency Response Officer.

Nadiya uses the tool in a conversation with someone wanting NHS emotional support for someone in their family. Information collected by Nadiya could be shared using the FHIR API standard being used in parts of the NHS.

In another step Nadiya asks who needs support and whether the person asking for their family member has their permission. The hypothesis here is that people want to be able to get support on behalf of others.

At the end of the conversation Nadiya asks what organisations information can be shared with in order to get them more support. Consent to share information in emergencies isn’t always necessary according to current official guidance. As the draft code of practice by Information Commissioner’s Officer says:

“In an emergency you should go ahead and share data as is necessary and proportionate…In these situations it would be more harmful not to share the data than to share it.”

While this is the case, we wanted to check how people felt about information being shared with different organisations. In this moment we are testing the hypothesis people are ok with information being shared with other organisations who can support them.

What we learned

The proactive text was well received

Our first hypothesis appeared to be right - people are more visible in emergencies if they’re texted about support available.

We broadly got the first stage right – how to make someone aware support is available. People trust proactive texts, but it would have to be timely. Certain features of the text people were shown helped with building trust. The fact that the sender was displayed as British Red Cross helped. People saw British Red Cross as a neutral organisation and an organisation they are familiar with. Also, tailoring the text message to include details of the emergency gave people the sense that they would be more likely to trust it in an emergency.

“It feels reassuring someone is there”

Human contact is vital

Our next hypothesis proved wrong — assessing someone’s needs can be fully automated.

Although people were fine for the initial offer of support to arrive by text, people then just want to speak to someone. We heard quite conclusively that you cannot completely automate assessing someone’s needs.

“If I’m just clicking on a form I could be crying and no one would know”

“The texts aren’t human really. You can’t get your feelings across”

“If that was the process I would be annoyed. It seems long winded.”

This raises a questions for our next sprint — how can we humanely and quickly assess someone’s needs?

People might evacuate to community spaces

This hypothesis was a bit inconclusive–people are more visible in emergencies if they can register for support in community spaces.

People in Cardiff said if there was a fire, they’d go to their local community centre, youth club and mosque. However everyone’s first thought was to evacuate to friends and family.

“I would get on the train to London to my mum and sister.”

“If I had my car keys, I would take my family to my mums.”

“I’d maybe go to the community centre. We’ve got a community here.”

Showing the prototype to the manager of a local community centre, she said:

“I always wondered what we [the community centre] would do in an emergency [at the tower block]…I would call [Red Cross] to get help for the whole centre.”

This is insightful as it suggests community spaces would need to register multiple families rather than individuals like our prototype assumes.

People want to register on behalf of others

Our hypothesis people want to be able to get support on behalf of others proved right. For example one person told us:

“I would try sort my nan out [with support].”

Particularly for family units (broadly defined), people felt they would want to register for the whole family. However the process needs to be clear and concise and people should only be asked to tell their story once. One person we spoke to had four children and didn’t want the process to be too long.

“This is a long one. So I’d provide all my family’s names?”

This means we need to consider how a potential service could register families and other groups.

Traditional consent models create another barrier

It wasn’t clear if our final hypothesis stood up — people are ok with information being shared with other organisations who can support them.

People got annoyed and confused being asked about data sharing. We heard that in the hours after evacuating, people will only be thinking of their immediate needs. People told us they would not want to be asked to make decisions around consent to meet possible future needs. It felt like another page of bureaucracy to fill out to get help.

“When will this end? I would just want to speak to someone.”

This is not to say people are ok with data sharing with other organisations. Some people spoke of not trusting some organisations:

“I would want a middleman who has nothing to gain.”

There’s some important questions we need to answer about data sharing. We’re planning to use the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas to help our team, wider organisation and partners to ask these questions. But first we need to find ideas we’re confident can collect information about who’s been affected in emergencies.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

We’ll be iterating and discarding ideas based on what we learned in Cardiff. Next we’re heading to Cumbria to test ideas with people who’ve experienced flooding there.

Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

Latest work and opinions by the digital and innovation teams at BRC

Harry Trimble

Written by

Designer at Red Cross, previously @projectsbyif, @gdsteam. Fairness fan

Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

Latest work and opinions by the digital and innovation teams at BRC

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