Carnegie Mellon University

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February 03, 2012

App Aid

United Way Agencies To Implement System Designed by Students

By Heidi Opdyke

A classroom project is having real-world applications for the United Way of Allegheny County by helping to speed the recovery process for disaster victims.

The United Way, in conjunction with the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, North Hills Community Outreach and Catholic Charities, reached out to the Heinz College to help streamline the assessment process.

Joe Mertz, a professor in the Heinz College, turned the project over to Aaron Gross, Lei Shi, Soundarya Rangaraj, Vidhya Venkatasubramanian, Xue Zhang and Yao Yao for their capstone project in the Masters of Information Systems Management program.

"We had a good team working on it, and the team focused on creating a solution that the program could really use," Mertz said.

The problem was door-to-door assessments after disasters were recorded on paper, which then had to be entered into a database to be shared with partner agencies. The process is time consuming, prone to errors and results in slower and less effective assistance to victims.

"The process of assessing the damage of a natural disaster and coordinating the response efforts of agencies can be a lengthy and difficult task at a time when short response times and immediate action are crucial," said Julie DeSeyn, United Way's director of programs for financially struggling adults and families; and director of PA 2-1-1 Southwest, a social services helpline recently launched by United Way. "This application will expedite the assessment and information sharing process, and will help agencies to avoid redundancies when addressing the emergency."

The team's Web-based application could be used in the field to upload information to a shared Web-based database called VisionLink CommunityOS, the software system of PA 2-1-1.

Partner agencies can then access the information, allowing them to begin addressing the disaster immediately. The app is a first of its kind within the national disaster community.

When it goes into use this summer, it could drastically reduce processing information from three days to 30 minutes. The team's system can be used on smartphones and iPads even when the Internet wasn't available.

"The students listened well and did two sets of tests in prototype and development," Mertz said. He said they used feedback from the client. "We always try to teach types of best practices, but given the speed of a semester students don't always do it that way."

Expectations for the project are high, and Mertz said the team created something of real value, which has sparked interest from as far away as Philadelphia.

"We learned so much from this process, not just about the tools we needed to create an application from scratch, but also about the disaster community and the many agencies and individuals in Pittsburgh who serve others," Gross said. "Being able to say we created this project and give it away, especially when so many people are in need - even when there is not a disaster going on - really makes it all worth while."

"This new assessment system will help to ensure that no one is forgotten," said Maria Christina of North Hills Community Outreach. "We will be able to know and share 'who needs help and what do they need?' The work of these students may be saving lives."

DeSeyn is a 1998 graduate of the Heinz College, which she described as being a "sweet spot where public policy and information technology meet."

"We're just thrilled. The students were just really into it. They did a fantastic job," DeSeyn said. "We're so grateful for the resource that we have in CMU."