Skip to content
Field Reports

Field Report: Researching disasters in real time

Salesforce Ignite’s David O’Donnell on redefining nimble in-context research for an app MVP

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

David O’Donnell says that in the twenty years he’s been a design innovation consultant,’s “Beacon,” a prototype for a disaster information and connectivity tool, is the most topical project he’s ever worked on.

“Over the course of the two months that we were working on the project, Hurricane Irma happened, Hurricane Harvey happened, the wildfires in California happened, the earthquake in Mexico happened, and the active shooter situation in Vegas happened,” O’Donnell says. “Every time we looked at the news, we said, Oh my god, this is what we're talking about, this is our project happening live in front of us."

O’Donnell is a Director at Salesforce Ignite, the design thinking and strategy group inside CRM and business intelligence company Salesforce. The project resulted from a collaboration with non-profit, whose mission is to bring the the best available technology and situational awareness to people in danger, so that they can find paths to safety. NeverAgain’s CEO, Geoff Green, is also an employee in Salesforce’s Industry Acceleration Group, as well as a former government employee who worked on response and recovery issues post Hurricane Katrina, Gustav, and Ike. Green approached Ignite to help clarify NeverAgain’s core minimum viable product. For O’Donnell, it was a challenge that spoke to his inner People Nerd on several levels.

“I'm a researcher by training, a manager and strategist by professional development, and so my interest is always in people,” he says. “Doing design research, you can't only nerd out about your research subjects. You also have to nerd out about the customer and the client. They’re people too. If they’re trying to do something innovative in the marketplace, I have to think about how I tell a story with the research findings that will actually make the light bulb go on in their heads, and shore up their conviction to take a risk.”

Doing design research, you can’t only nerd out about your research subjects. You also have to nerd out about the customer and the client. They’re people too.

David O’Donnell

The Ignite and NeverAgain teams had just finished the project kickoff meeting when Hurricane Harvey was forecast to hit Houston. Recognizing that talking to people in real-time who were being affected by a disaster could vastly improve the tool’s functionality, they mobilized to start their initial research right away, utilizing dscout to create a series of missions to get people on the ground sharing their stories. Those submissions informed several later field visits, and the team used that data to inform and conceptualize Beacon, a system that utilizes government disaster awareness technology and shares that intelligence with people through a messaging service.

“The research showed us that the need is very, very clear,” O’Donnell says. “The challenges are very, very clear. The business opportunity is pretty clear. As we all saw with the news coverage of the recent hurricanes, there's a sort of repurposing of social media to communicate with first responders or get people help or off their roofs. But there isn't really an existing tool that provides high quality, locally specific data about an individual’s particular house, or route to safety.”

He acknowledges that there are a number of existing weather apps and products in the market, but none that provide the kind of geographic data that’s actually relevant to people on the ground.

“The news and social media aren’t talking about what's happening at 1140 West Main Street, or whatever your address is,” O’Donnell says of the gap in the system. “They’re just speaking in broad terms, saying ‘Houston is overcome.’ Or you’re getting notifications on your phone saying ‘Tornado warning for Broward county.’ That’s not specific. It doesn’t tell you where the flooding is, or how high water levels are or are projected to be in a certain area. And when you’re looking at whether water is going to get into your house, or how much damage it’s going to do, there’s a big difference between a foot of water and four feet of water.”

dscout recently sat down with O’Donnell to talk about the project and the challenges in conducting research while a disaster is unfolding.

Notes from David O’Donnell...

On safety and unpredictability…

With a hurricane, of course you want to get people who are actually in the path of the storm, but the path of a storm is often unpredictable. It keeps changing. With Irma, it ended up going much further west than it was expected. We had a bunch of scouts who were in Miami, and so their experience of the storm was much less severe. Obviously, in any situation, safety is the absolute first priority. We were very clear about that with people; get out of the house, get yourself safe, then think about responding to our questions.

On what they found is helpful to people during major disasters…

During disasters, people don't want news. They want location specific information and recommendations for what to do next. The news doesn't provide that. They don't want a ton of different sources that they have to scroll through and make sense of. They want data that's been triangulated from multiple sources and pulled together for them, but they want to know where that data came from. Effectively, they want citations in some form; they want to know this piece of information came from NOAA, or this came from the Hurricane Watch Center in Europe, and it came from sifting through tons of live Facebook or social media posts. 

And so it was out of the clear delineation of those insights that NeverAgain was able to really focus their product into something that’s going to help people with the problems they’re having in real time during disasters.

We knew that if it was possible it would be invaluable to talk to people during an actual disaster. The great thing about dscout was that we were able to put questions in the field very, very quickly. We put together our hypotheses, articulated them as a set of questions, and put the mission into action. We started getting reports in real time; we were simultaneously watching reports from scouts as we were seeing events unfold on the news.

David O’Donnell

On the challenge of conducting research about disasters…

It was a bit of a quandary, because we wanted to talk to people who had experienced disasters, but we didn’t quite know how to approach that. The whole point of the project is what are your needs when you're in the middle of a disaster? When you wake up, and you swing your feet over your bed, and you're in two feet of water. What do you need in that moment? What are the challenges? In what way does the current system, the technology, the news, the connectivity, how is that failing you in that moment? We knew that if it was possible it would be invaluable to talk to people during those moments. In one sense because it’s so hard to recall some of that information, especially if it was a couple of years ago. But in addition, the timeline may have meant that the technology, or the tools or communication systems they were using would have been different than it is today, and not able to inform our strategy as well.

On putting together a research approach and methodology in a timeframe greatly accelerated by the occurrence of a disaster…

We were a week into the project and the news started talking about Hurricane Harvey. And we knew that if it was possible to get feedback from people live, or close to live, updates from people who were in the situations we were trying to model for, that it would be invaluable and extremely helpful to the research. So we put the project into the field very, very quickly. We were already very familiar with dscout as a tool, which was incredibly helpful because it allowed us to get the project in place amazingly quickly. We put together our research hypotheses, articulated them as a set of questions, and put the research mission into action. We caught the tail end of Hurricane Harvey; we were really able to talk to people as the floodwaters were receding. But they were able to talk to us about what their experiences had been like so it was pretty on point. And then, of course, Irma happened a week later. We’d recruited scouts in the path of the hurricane before Irma made landfall, and they were describing to us in real time what was happening as the hurricane made landfall.  We were simultaneously watching reports from scouts come in about the same time as we were seeing events unfold on the news. 

On the range of responses…

With Irma, a lot of the people we were talking to had evacuated. They were totally connected, totally safe, but really wondering what's happening to my house? What's happening to my neighborhood? The tool is designed to encourage people who should to evacuate and then keep them apprised of what's happening. Because the news is showing only the most dramatic, worst stories. 

And those that were in Florida during Irma, the ones we talked to, many of them were sitting with their families waiting, listening to the news. My fundamental question for the mission was, what's happening? Do you feel safe? What are your sources of information? What are those sources telling? To what degree are those sources helpful or not helpful? It was actually a time when they could be reflective, and speak articulately about what was happening. Then when the power went out and the cell towers went out, we didn't get any posts. 

With Harvey, we talked to people during the immediate aftermath. They were still dealing with effects, coming back to their houses after having evacuated, and just seeing the damage.

In general, having the video capabilities and the virtual experience of being in the field was invaluable. One guy, in Houston, submitted a series of different missions about his experience. He was literally in water up to his chest walking out of his house with his cat. He was on his roof for 16 hours. It gives you a really visceral sense of why this kind of product is needed.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest