MIT researchers have developed an open-source toolkit for creating apps for smartphones using  Google's Android software

Disaster relief app toolkit relies on semantic web standard

People with minimal programming skills can quickly build smartphone apps to manage work in disaster zones thanks to a toolkit that uses semantic web standards.

Researchers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and their colleagues from the Qatar Computing Research Institute have introduced an upgrade to the App Inventor, an open-source software allowing non-programmers to create applications for smartphones running Google’s Android operating system.

By simply putting together colour-coded graphic components, an emergency aid worker or a search and rescue officer could, for example, build an application that would monitor many different data sources on the Internet for updated information about the locations of ad hoc shelters, and display them all on a Google map. The app could also allow individual users to revise, annotate or supplement the information displayed in the map.

The innovative toolkit has recently been introduced during a workshop on semantic cities in Beijing. It relies on the resource description framework (RDF) - a central standard of the so-called semantic web.The RDF standard seeks to turn the web from a giant text file into a giant database, providing a simple way to label data items at different locations on the web and to describe the relationships between them.

This technique could provide more accurate and relevant search results, filtering out those website that contain the searched terms only loosely connected, for example several hundred pages apart in an e-book.

Semantic web search could also pick out the relevant sections of only those sites that contain information related to the geographic coordinates of the searched terms.

Since the RDF standard was first released in 2004, its adoption has been slow but steady. Companies like IBM and Sears, media outlets like the New York Times and the BBC, and public information sources like airport web sites and the PubMed index of medical-journal articles all use RDF.

But perhaps more importantly for the new disaster-response tool, so do many government agencies.

“We’re hoping that we’ll have a kind of cyclic effect,” said Lalana Kagal, the leader of the team.  “As people use these apps more, they will automatically generate structured data. And as there’s more structured data out there, there will be people building more apps to consume them, which will in turn generate more structured data.”

However, reviewers have pointed out the new tool still requires a person with decent knowledge of the SPARQL scripting language used to query linked data. “Someone who knows how to develop apps can much more quickly develop something and move it to a mobile platform. You may need some basic knowledge, but the tool’s going to make it possible to do it much faster and easier,” said Jim Handler, director of the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

However, the MIT-based team is already developing a user-friendly software that will enable people to compose SPARQL queries without knowing anything about the language’s syntax.

“When you have a disaster, there are two issues,” Handler said. “One is, how do you get the data you need and pull it together, and two is, how do you put that in the hands of the person who needs it. And this project is one of the first to really approach both parts of the problem together.”

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