STiR Profile: Working to Map Flood Risk in Norfolk, Va.

Within this year’s Startup in Residence cohort, Civis Analytics is teaming up with the city to help residents there get a better understanding of what could happen to their homes during a major flood.

by / February 1, 2019

The local government in Norfolk, Va., is now working with a national data analytics company on a project that would let residents pinpoint exactly what might happen to their homes in the event of a flood.

The idea is that Norfolk and the company, Civis Analytics, will build a data analytics tool so informative and easy to access that it would lead to residents making better decisions before, during and after a flood.

Norfolk and Civis are just one of more than 20 government/private-sector collaborations across the country that have been brought together by Startup in Residence (STiR), an international program aimed at facilitating cooperation between the public and private sectors. The way STiR works is that companies spend 16 weeks embedded in state or local government, volunteering their time to create a project to solve a long-standing problem, in the process potentially earning a contract and a broader pathway into the gov tech market.

Peter Buryk, an analyst with the city who is one of the main public servants working on this project, said he hadn’t heard of Civis before the city signed up to participate in STiR. For STiR, Norfolk laid out multiple problems it hoped private-sector technologists could solve, one of those being improving communication about the severity of flood risks to its community. Civis, meanwhile, had previously worked directly with the National Flood Insurance Program, which is connected to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to help test marketing campaigns. It was a natural fit.

Norfolk laid out its problem for STiR and Civis applied to solve it, doing so via STiR’s application which doubles as a completed RFP.

“Their proposal just really showed that they understood our challenge,” Buryk said. “They spoke the language of flooding, they had technical experience and project experience through FEMA and the city of Houston on working with flooding. It was really a perfect fit.”

Civis, like other STiR participants across the country, is now finishing week two of a 16-week working relationship with the city. One of the company’s interests, said Amy Deora, director of public sector analytics for Civis, is helping to make sure that everyone in Norfolk who can be covered by flood insurance is.

There is no law making flood insurance mandatory. Civis and the city, however, are working to spread awareness about the risks that flooding poses to properties in Norfolk, so that residents can make informed choices about it. A higher penetration of flood-insured properties leads to a higher FEMA rating, which in turn decreases the cost of home insurance premiums throughout the city. To up the percentage of homeowners who have flood insurance in Norfolk would save everyone money throughout the year, as well as reduce the devastation suffered in the increasingly likely event of a flood.

What Civis is working on, Deora said, is a platform that has both internal- and external-facing components. The public-facing side of this platform would enable users to type in their home addresses and then toggle through to see exactly how much damage would be done to their houses in a severe flood scenario. Deora said this information is currently available in disparate places, and part of Civis' data analytics work will involve getting it all assembled in one, easily searchable place for each property. Floodsmart.gov, for example, lets users look up their addresses. The results, however, show a flood map of where residents live, leaving individuals to interpret where their property is located as well as what the threat may be exactly.

Civis is hoping to take data the city already has — data that is specifically about individual property parcels — and create a far more precise map for the entire city. Like many of the projects involved with STiR, this one has the potential to eventually be scaled to other cities as well.

“Right now, obviously, our first priority is that we meet the needs of the city of Norfolk directly,” Deora said, “but we’re really excited about being able to share this solution with other cities, and I think Norfolk is excited to be on the vanguard of this.”

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.