Eric Park's eyes are transfixed on the television. He watches in horror as the news anchors somberly report on two planes slamming into New York City's World Trade Center earlier in the day. Is he safe? Is his family safe? Is anyone in North America safe? Park, his stomach wrenched in knots, reaches for the phone and dials his parents' work numbers. His heart races and despair sets in as the only thing he hears is the droid-like voice of an operator recording:
Your call cannot be placed at this time. Please try again.
Finally giving up redialing, he stares in disbelief as the television drones on about the day's breaking news of the terrorist attacks; he can't believe he has to trudge off to class at UC Berkeley before he can hear his parents' familiar voices. Even though they are 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero, he just wants to know that they are safe.
Park's helplessness on 9-11 was the impetus for the I'm OK! mobile app. It enables users to easily notify their network of friends and family via SMS, even when phone lines are jammed—which can be critical, or simply comforting, during an emergency or disaster situation.
Park, now a Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley scientist, and his team of colleagues, including NASA scientist Trey Smith and CMU software engineer Ted Morse, recently won first prize for the app at the Random Hacks of Kindness Disaster Relief Codejam Unconference, an event sponsored by Google, Microsoft, NASA, SecondMuse, Yahoo, and World Bank.
The smartphone app is available for download at http://imokapp.appspot.com