Blog Post

How local Q&A apps can be a reverse Twitter during disasters

Social questions mobile apps are usually advertised as a way to find out, in real time, the status of a location. Normal application tends to be situations like wanting to know “Is that bar crowded?” But users are starting to find even more practical uses for these kinds of apps, with questions along the lines of “Is it safe to go surfing right now?” or “Which stores are open?” as during Hurricane Irene and  the London riots.

There are several iPhone (s aapl) apps that allow users to ask questions of random people checked in to various locations. That includes location-based question apps like Locqly, Crowdbeacon and Social Questions (mobile app for Quora), but those aren’t focused on real-time answers. Loopt, a location-based check-in app like Foursquare and Gowalla, now has a questions feature for several cities, but those questions (at least initially) were posed by the company’s own community managers.

Localmind is an iPhone app that launched at SXSW Interactive this year and has about 30,000 users right now. (There is also an Android (s goog) version that launched earlier this month.) I talked with Localmind Co-Founder and CEO Lenny Rachitsky recently about how those users have recently begun using his app during major recent disasters.

It was almost like “a reverse Twitter,” as Rachitsky put it. Through Localmind, you’d basically be prompting people for their status updates, instead of the other way around.

It started during the London riots, when he noticed questions coming through their system asking about the status of a few locations during the week of mayhem that engulfed the city. But questions about the relative safety or status of locations popped up again during last week’s quake that rattled the East Coast, and even more so over the weekend as Hurricane Irene barreled up the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

Over the weekend, the questions asked of people checked into locations from North Carolina up to New York City about Irene ranged from the firmly tongue-in-cheek (To a user in Richmond, Va.: “Is it wet at Hurricane Irene?”) to the practical (“What’s the closest public transportation in your area?” to someone in Manhattan) to the merely curious (User from Ohio to someone in Virginia Beach, Va.: “What’s it like in the shadow of Irene?”).

The respective answers, if you’re curious, were “Wet, yes, but not as flooded as Gaston!,” “Nothing is operating public transportation-wise because of Hurricane Irene” and “The storm lasted all night. My house is on the water, and water rose 5′ above the high tide. Lots of trees down.”

Now this was not the only way to find out news during the storm from people on the ground. Plenty of people used Twitter during the hurricane, but if you were watching from afar, as I was in San Francisco, you could either wait for tweets that had an Irene-related hashtag to roll in or ask questions of people who are on Twitter. There’s no guarantee of an answer, especially if the person is, say, taping up their windows or clearing their driveway of fallen tree limbs.

There’s no guarantee on Localmind either that you’ll get a response, but the pop-up notifications it uses does prompt users checked in somewhere to answer. And in this case, answers came in relatively fast, which is key for a real-time Q&A service. This past weekend, Rachitsky said Localmind saw a 25-percent increase in questions answered “within 10 minutes,” and a 25-percent increase in questions being asked of users checked in to East Coast locations.

While this might in hindsight seem a natural way of using the app, it’s not exactly how the guys behind Localmind conceived of the service. “This use case came out of nowhere for us, as we thought we were building a very local location-based app,” said Rachitsky, who is one of three employees of the Canada San Francisco-based startup. “We realized it’s very compelling to be able to zoom out on the map, find a marker in say Japan or Australia, and send a question that goes to some random person in Japan/Australia/etc.” Or North Carolina, New York, or London.

And they’re clearly please with this development.

Said Rachitsky, “It’s not a primary use case, but we’re happy to support it.”

Be sure to join us at Mobilize 2011 next month where Localmind will be one of 10 startups in the LaunchPad competition. Also at Mobilize you’ll learn about other ways we’ll be using mobile, social, and location-based based apps in the future, the secrets of high-engagement apps and more.