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GIS Center helps develop damage assessment application

5/31/2010

The building, like so many homes and businesses in middle Tennessee, was a pale brown from where the floodwaters covered it. Mike Wilson, manager of Austin Peay State University’s Geographic Information Systems, stood among the tree limbs and other debris in the Woodlawn community and pulled out his cell phone.
The building, like so many homes and businesses in middle Tennessee, was a pale brown from where the floodwaters covered it. Mike Wilson, manager of Austin Peay State University's Geographic Information Systems, stood among the tree limbs and other debris in the Woodlawn community and pulled out his cell phone.

He wasn't making a call. He was filling out a damage assessment of the property and filing it to an electronic server. It took him only a few minutes to complete. For years, the long, drawn-out process of recording the destruction inflicted by a disaster has sometimes taken days or weeks, delaying the time it takes for needed aid to reach an area, but a new cell phone application, developed by the APSU GIS Center and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, may soon allow emergency responders to document immediately any damage they come across.

“Right now, damage assessment is done all on paper and pencil,” Wilson said. “With the paper forms, they have to be collected, somebody has to transcribe them, somebody has to compile them and then submit it to the state. By collecting damage assessments via mobile phone, you can submit it quicker. And because it's tied to a GPS point, you can put it on a map.”

The APSU GIS Center has worked for years with the Homeland Security District 7 to develop this technology, and in 2009, the center received a grant from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to create the Disaster Mitigation And Recovery Kit (DMARK) application for Android Mobile Phones. The prototype application was unveiled on April 7. It is still in the testing phase, but Wilson said they used the recent middle Tennessee floods to see how the DMARK program worked in a real-world scenario.

“In this case they're not going to do an initial damage assessment,” he said. “The damage was too great. Usually when you have a disaster, you need X number of dollars for a county to be considered a disaster area. So the point of the initial assessment is to gather enough information saying we meet that threshold. They've already met it here. They want to use this (flood) to test the proof of the concept.”

In the days following the flood, Wilson and Doug Catellier, GIS analyst, traveled around Montgomery County with county building and codes officials as they filled out damage assessments on paper. The two men, however, also plugged the information into their phones. The new DMARK application allowed them to locate the exact addresses of damaged properties through Global Positioning System technology. The system is tied into the property assessor's database, so they immediately found the names of the property owners. From there, they filled out a simple set of check boxes, listing what type of damage a home or business sustained and what type of insurance the property owner had. The DMARK system even allowed Wilson and Catellier to take pictures of the damage and record an audio memo describing the destruction.

“For the last three years, I have been discussing with the local EMA and Homeland Security District about how can we do this quicker and easier,” Wilson said. “This app allows for a quick and accurate initial assessment. I can save the report and that will save it to our server, where EMA can quickly access the record.”

The DMARK system, once it is fully operationally, will speed up the time it takes for communities and families affected by disasters to receive the aid they need. More information on this application is available online at http://gisweb.apsu.edu/dmark. -- Charles Booth