ERDC team utilizes app to quickly help with blue roofs for hurricane victims

Published 8:00 pm Friday, November 17, 2017

They have become a familiar site in any post-hurricane zone — bright blue tarps covering roofs damaged by the storm.

With the recent devastation caused in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, a team of programmers in the Information Technology Laboratory at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg have been working overtime to make sure the blue tarps can be installed quickly and efficiently.

“It has been 12 to 16 hour days for them five to seven days a week depending on what the urgency is in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico,” Vernessa Noye, the supervisory computer scientist in ITL, said.

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Where once inspectors used to have to collect information from home visits on paper and then work to compile the needed into a database, now they can do everything within an app managed by the mobile computing team at ERDC.

“You’ve got inspectors going out to inspect a person’s home that has damage and they need to take pictures, so they need a camera,” Jordan Donovan, a computer scientist on the project, said. “They have a phone in case they need to call their supervisor. They have to have something that can capture GPS coordinates and a lot of smart phones can do this now. We basically were like the only other thing that needs to be included in the smartphone is the form they fill out.”

The Blue Roof program applications were developed about a decade ago, Donovan said, but the 2017 hurricane season was the first time they were deployed on a large scale.

“It was very nerve racking, especially since it was developed about a decade ago it just hasn’t been used,” Donovan said. “We pulled it off the shelf a month or two before hurricane season started. We knew it was around we just wanted to make sure everything was working just in case the mission came through.”

In the three impacted areas, 460 tablets loaded with the program have been deployed enabling workers to sign up and inspect more than 100,000 homes with more work still being done.

“The paper forms were taking way too long,” Donovan said. “They were requiring way too many resources such as people and time and money. They tried to make that efficient and the figures I’ve seen say it made it up to seven times more efficient. It saved a ton of time. Where it was taking a week, now it takes a day.”

In Florida, regional centers were set up where impacted homeowners could come and ask for help. There they used one of the two applications developed at ERDC input their information into the database. That information then ties into a separate application used by the inspectors where they can add in photos, information on the necessary repairs and more.

“The inspector would go with an IPhone which had the Blue Roof inspector application,” Donovan said. “When they got to the home all that data would be synced back into the database for the supervisor to see.”

The system also allows contracts to see exactly which homes need to be repaired and how much material will be needed. Once they tarp a house, they can check it as completed in the system minimizing overlapping work.

“Even saving 10 seconds on each home could save hours a day and days in a month,” Donovan said. “That is what we have been doing. Trying to make it just a little more efficient and making sure everything is working correctly.”

Since the hurricanes hit, the team at ERDC has been working with those in the field to troubleshoot the app and address problems workers have discovered that were hindering productivity.

“The work we’ve been doing is we’ve been talking on the phone with the people in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on how the mission is going and how we can help make it more efficient than it is already,” Donovan said. “Usually if I am on the phone with them and they say something of that nature, we will bring it back to our team here of developers and we will discuss what is the best way we can help them.”

Some of the biggest changes were improving the ability of the app to work offline and be synced later with the lack of power and internet in some of the areas and enabling the collection of the raw homeowner data in the inspector’s app due to the conditions in Puerto Rico.

While they haven’t physically been in the field, the eight-member team at ERDC has played a critical role in enabling those in need to return to their homes.

“It feels really good personally. It is a lot of hard work, but knowing that you are making a difference, knowing you are making an impact at least for me feels really good,” Donovan said. “We are making it so that instead of this person having to wait a month to get their home repaired they are only having to wait a couple days or even having to wait a couple days now they are only having to wait couple hours.”