2020 proved many Americans are unprepared for disasters. Tech executives want to solve the problem with educational apps similar to Duolingo and Headspace.

  • A not insignificant amount of Americans has no worst-case-scenario plan in place should disasters arise, despite government officials and other organizations pushing for personal preparedness.
  • Dan Kessler, CEO of disaster preparedness app Harbor that launched in October, and others like him want to use technology to help people form healthy habits. 
  • Harbor uses a person's location to identify everyday emergencies and risks and engages them through short quizzes, planning exercises, and regular pop-ups — features inspired by popular learning apps like Headspace and Duolingo. 
  • Tech is more accessible than traditional means like emergency kits, which can be costly for low-income households, but it remains to be seen whether it's a habit that will stick for many.
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In 2005, Dan Kessler evacuated New Orleans in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina. In 2018, he told Insider he experienced a "massive earthquake" while in Mexico with his family. Now living in the Santa Monica Mountains of California, he recounted encroaching wildfires coming to "knock on my door" repeatedly in recent years, causing him to evacuate once again.

"But that's not unique to me," Kessler added. "This stuff happens to everyone all the time."

It's a claim that might have sounded dramatic if it wasn't made in 2020, which saw a slew of record-breaking disasters hit the United States amidst the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) survey this year, 47% of Americans have "personal or familial experience with the impacts of a disaster." 

As the CEO of Harbor, a disaster preparedness app launched in October, it's part of Kessler's job to see the ways these events shape our everyday lives.

"It's kind of what everybody knows and feels right now in 2020, which is that emergencies happen — and we're not prepared," Kessler said. 

How Harbor hopes habits can help

For years, organizations and agencies, including FEMA, have performed studies to better understand how ready Americans are if disasters strike. The end results typically support the same conclusion Kessler offered: A significant portion of the population has no worst-case-scenario plan in place. That's despite ongoing efforts from government officials to push personal preparedness as a pillar of emergency response.

"People tend to not want to spend their time when they're not experiencing a disaster thinking about it and getting prepared, and it's hard to motivate people to do so," said Brian Houston, director of the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri, which provides resources to improve preparedness, recovery, and resilience in communities impacted by crises. "So the promise of technology has always been [that] maybe we can use some of this tech to kind of solve this wicked problem of getting people prepared for disasters."

It's not that the information isn't out there — there's Ready.gov, FEMA, the Red Cross, and a number of city-issued disaster preparedness websites, social media accounts, and apps. The problem, Kessler believes, is that it's not delivered in a "consumer friendly" way to the general populace, instead shrouded in either fear, official jargon, or used to push a product. That's where he hopes Harbor can come in.

"What we're trying to innovate is that it is about the skills, it's about learning," he said. "It's about having a plan in place, and not viewing it from a place of fear, but viewing it from a place of optimism and frankly, forming a healthy habit."

Using technology to form a habit is a realm Kessler knows well — he previously spent three years at Headspace as the vice president of global business development for the popular meditation app, which claims to have over 65 million users. He was brought on to run Harbor in January and has since overseen its $5 million seed funding round and recent launch on iOS. 

"I think with meditation, it was very similar — a lot of people really wanted to learn this important skill of meditation, but there were no simple tools for that," Kessler said. "So we set out to build the platform to help them do that to talk about disaster preparedness." 

The app, which is currently free for individuals and offers a paid version for businesses, provides users a customized approach tailored to their current preparedness level and specific risks. It uses their location to identify their likelihood to deal with everything from "everyday emergencies" like car breakdowns to the larger threats of earthquakes or wildfires.

"We really want to make sure that we are democratizing these skills as much as possible," Kessler said of the app's mission. "It's as simple as having an emergency meetup location for your family or just checking to see if your smoke detector is working."  

Kessler cites both Headspace and popular language learning app Duolingo as inspirations for the app's format, which includes short quizzes, checklists, planning exercises, and regular pop-ups offering encouragement as users move through their personal learning portals. The information included is based on an extensive database the company compiled from FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States Geological Survey, land maps, building codes, and other data points. Harbor also brought on advisors from FEMA, Red Cross, and Ready.gov, amongst other disaster experts. 

The influence of 2020

Joan Stoeckle, associate design director at strategy and design firm Artefact, believes tech holds a unique power to make this sort of essential information accessible, helping reach those who are "motivated, but maybe not motivated enough to kind of sift through all of that," she said. Stoeckle helped design Navis, a conceptual emergency management system that imagines how technologies like augmented reality can be applied to the preparedness space. The concept was inspired in part by her own experience watching neighbors in Seattle engage in "panic-driven behaviors," such as stockpiling toilet paper and stripping grocery shelves bare, as the city enacted shelter-in-place orders this spring.

"I found myself being less kind of panicky, because my family had a personalized emergency kit and plan in place," Stoeckle said.

According to Houston, it's still too early to tell whether experiences like that will have a lasting effect on the nation's culture of preparedness — or lack thereof. While this year's inundation of disasters might prove to motivate some into taking preparedness measures, as Stoeckle predicted, he counters that it could dissuade others. 

"Sometimes more disasters decrease people's motivations because they don't feel like they have a lot of control over their lives," Houston said. "Or sometimes they feel like, 'Well, the last hurricane came, and I was okay. So I'll be alright next time, too.'"

While FEMA claimed there was a "tidal wave of culture change" this year in its annual preparedness survey, the actual statistics show relatively minor percentage shifts from 2019. There has been significant anecdotal reporting, however, on the rising popularity of emergency preparedness products this year — following a pre-pandemic market trend — which Kessler and Stoeckle see as potentially problematic. Both note that these items can offer a false sense of readiness for those who purchase them and store them away without integrating them as part of a plan. Harbor does, however, offer kits and other emergency items on its website for purchase, supplementing the information it provides on its app.

Sean Griffin, a former director for incident management integration policy on the US National Security Council at the White House, added that a focus on purchasing preparedness can also disenfranchise those who are most at risk to experience the worst of disasters. 

"I think one of the fallacies of individual preparedness is that people actually have the resources to be individually prepared, and that's a problem, because one of the key messages is, you know, make a kit, get a kit," Griffin said. "Who's going to pay for that kit? Is there a tax write-off for that kit?" 

Research has shown that disasters disproportionately impact lower-income communities, making them more vulnerable to natural hazards like hurricanes and making it more difficult for them to recover. With many of the popular disaster kits on the market costing upwards of $100, these items can price out those who could most use them.

The potential and challenges of using tech to tackle preparedness 

Technology could offer a more attainable option for various populations to up their preparedness. Griffin is now the CEO of Disaster Tech, a startup that utilizes technology to support situational awareness, operational coordination, and planning in the times before, during, and after disasters. Though he believes tech has the power to shape behavior and help people make better decisions around preparedness, he also sees it as just one piece of what will need to be a larger, community-focused approach. 

"Technology is not going to solve behavioral issues," he said. "That's going to happen at the home, at the church, at the community center, the places where trust is fostered and developed. And that's where we're going to see a dent in our preparedness."

Stoeckle similarly stressed a community-forward approach with Navis, which envisions how community members could use Alexa-like devices to both help them prepare and match them with neighbors who have complementary preparedness skills or items. 

"Kind of like an assistant in the system has asked you what skills you might have or what resources you might be able to share in the event of an emergency, and it can kind of smartly pair those things, or people can make requests," Stoeckle said.

When it comes to existing tech that engages a community around preparedness, Houston points to the potential within existing social platforms, such as Facebook or Nextdoor. 

"I've always thought that the most promising tech tool would take advantage of those already-existing platforms and somehow use those connections — to information, to one's local geographic space — to help people get prepared for disasters or help with disaster response," Houston said. "We've had things like Facebook 'Safety Check,' and we've had little pieces of these tech platforms that are kind of focused on disaster, but they're few and far between, they've never really come together."

Social platforms have also been plagued with misinformation and conspiracies, which Houston sees as damaging their credibility in times of crisis. Though he believes Harbor has to overcome the barrier for users to first care enough to find it and then download the app, it does have the benefit of offering a fresh slate, while still offering the familiar, gamified style they've come to understand from other apps.

"I think it's an early question of how effective this will be — you know, is becoming disaster prepared the same thing as learning Spanish or learning to meditate?" Houston said.

So far, Kessler is cautiously optimistic about the potential Harbor holds. Though he didn't share specific numbers, he said that the app has downloads in the "five-figure range" after two months, and that those who sign up are "spending over 10 minutes in the app and returning regularly." Harbor has already rolled out an update improving its ability to target user risk and is planning to roll out on Android devices. 

"We're in the very early parts of the very early innings," Kessler said. "So there's no victories to claim, but I think what we've recognized was that there's quite a bit of market need for this product, and we're fitting that need."

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