Mobile device use rises in emergency situations

According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, nearly 20 percent of cellphone users have used their mobile devices to get help in emergency situations, which companies are beginning to take note of.

Following two major storm-related outages in 2012, Baltimore Gas and Electric unveiled a new mobile website which will easily allow customers to view an outage map or report an outage.

"We're looking at trying to communicate more and more in these events," said Rob Gould, the media representative for BGE. "There's no question we're not going backward."

A few years ago, BGE began participating more in social media, in order to create a two-way conversation between customers and the utility company, Gould said. In emergencies where customers are out of power for several days at a time, the ability to use a smartphone can be vital.

"I don't think we've begun to see the full scale of what it can mean for organizations like ours," Gould said.

The percentage is even higher for people who have simply used their mobile device during an emergency, according to 2011 numbers from Pew. About 40 percent of cellphone users said having a cellphone is helpful in an emergency situation, according to the study. Kasey Parr, the social media coordinator for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said depending on the generation, about half of users access its website from a mobile device. During an emergency, there will be a spike on the MEMA website of people coming from mobile devices, Parr said.

Parr keeps in mind that people might be using their mobile devices when posting information during an emergency situation, she said.

"Let's say you lose your power, people might only have their mobile devices to get their information out, so we want to be posting how to use a generator safely," Parr said.

Ronald Yaros, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who specializes in audience engagement with multimedia and mobile journalism, said current projections predict by the year 2020, everybody will use their mobile device for virtually every aspect of their life. A 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project also projected touch screens will become more and more prevalent.

Yaros said as younger generations grow older, they are more comfortable using a touch screen and smaller device than even their older peers in college.

"The mobile environment is poised for maximum growth," Yaros said.

One in five smartphone users currently utilizes Twitter from a mobile device, according to a Pew study. According to the 2012 survey of Twitter use, approximately 9 percent of adult cellphone users tweet using their mobile devices.

In emergency situations, such as Superstorm Sandy, tweets were sent with a common hashtag to curate information on Sandy. As the storm pummeled New York City, users tweeted photos of the destruction around them.

This citizen journalism is likely to rise, Yaros said. To avoid mistakes, GPS locators on phones and tweets can help confirm actual news as opposed to false tweets, he said. The corporate media is paying attention to these citizen journalists, said Deborah Vance, the department chair of Communication and Cinema at McDaniel College.

"They know they can't be everywhere, especially since they've cut their staffs so drastically," Vance said.

Journalists should look at GPS confirmation, and for photo or video in order to add credibility to a tweet in a breaking news situation, Yaros said. The combination of social media plus mobile assists in citizen journalism, Yaros said.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun