Teen-Created App Tracks Volunteer Hours During Emergency Response

The CERTPRO app, which is still under development, also creates a real-time database of Community Emergency Response Team members with special skills.

by Daniil Eliseev, The Dallas Morning News / June 24, 2015
Three North Texas seventh-graders have created an app that would help keep track of volunteers like CERT members. (FEMA/Earl Armstrong)

(TNS) — In the wake of the 2013 tornado in Moore, Okla., streams of local volunteers helped with the disaster relief effort, but federal emergency response teams were disorganized. The community also may have missed out on some federal aid because of the lack of organization.

Three North Texas seventh-graders have created an app that not only would help keep track of volunteers, but also would ensure that disaster-stricken communities get the federal aid they are entitled to.

Sahitya Senapathy from St. Mark’s School of Texas, Rushil Chander from Frisco ISD’s Wester Middle School, and Ashwin Koduri from Plano ISD’s Rice Middle School met in an after-school math class and put together Team Protons to enter a technology competition created by the Army.

The 13-year-olds traveled to Washington, D.C., last week as 20 national finalist teams presented their projects to a board of senior Army officials.

Rushil’s mom found out about the contest and put the team together.

“My mom put out an advertisement [in the class] because she’s the team coach, and the three of us were the ones who responded to it,” Rushil said.

They decided on the name “Team Protons,” because “we think positive,” Sahitya said.

The team competed in the Army’s 13th annual eCybermission STEM competition. The competition was held by the Army Education Outreach Program to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy and a foundation for innovative careers in science and engineering.

A national title was at stake, but the future of CERTPRO, the name of their app, is not. CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team.

The team has already won $17,000 in awards, $5,000 of which came from the Stem-In-Action grant, which eCybermission reserves for projects whose real-world implementation show the most promise.

It’s important because the number of volunteer hours put into a recovery effort plays a critical role in the amount of aid FEMA decides to send. Moore and other communities that have been struck by disasters might have received more help from the federal government if they had an accurate way to organize and record the efforts of their local volunteers.

CERTPRO also creates a real-time database of CERT members with special skills.

The teens coordinated with the Plano CERT to figure out what responders need in an app.

“At this time, the city of Plano does not have a functional method of searching for, locating, coordinating, or activating unique and/or special talents found within the ranks of our CERT members,” said Plano CERT Coordinator Ron Moore.

Plano hasn’t used the app in an actual crisis, but it was used in a few training exercises. Officials like the app and would like to see it eventually become an official means of organization and communication.

None of the teens had ever developed a mobile application, so all three of them spent their free time after school learning how to use the MIT App Inventor.

“We basically learned everything there is to know about that software since the beginning of last year,” Rushil said.

There were a few close calls. A critical update for the App Inventor was scheduled for release a few weeks before their portfolio was due for the competition.

The app they were building in the old software wouldn’t have been compatible with the new version, and a few weeks was not enough time to rebuild an app from the ground up.

Most seventh-graders would call it quits at that point, but not Rushil and the team. “We wrote to MIT, and they actually let us use the updated software before it was released so that we would have enough time to finish making the app.”

Team Protons spent the week participating in STEM enrichment activities that led up to the final judging panel on Thursday afternoon.

“They had a great time,” said Shri Chander, Rushil’s mother and Team Protons’ coach. “We didn’t win the national title but it was a very good experience. They got to meet some of the most senior civilian and army personnel working at military research facilities. It was amazing to see these 13-year-old boys present their project to these guys.”

Now that they are back from the competition, they want to get CERTPRO out of the development phase and into the hands of volunteers.

©2015 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.