Illustration: Bridge Route Planner Application provides Minneapolis commuters personalized routes, to help them navigate around disaster cleanup activities.

During Minneapolis' evening rush hour on Wednesday August 1, a bridge spanning the Mississippi River crashed into the water, taking 13 lives with it. Miraculously, a school bus stopped just short of plunging over the edge and the children on board suffered only cuts and bruises. But Interstate I 35-W, the city's main artery, had been severed, and rescue operations closed many major streets. City managers needed an immediate solution to the problem of getting people to work and keeping businesses open.

"When the I-35W bridge collapsed," said Minneapolis' Chief Information Officer Lynn Willenbring, "in addition to needing to support all the emergency responders and doing the rescue and recovery efforts, it was critical that we get information out to everybody who lives or works in Minneapolis. People needed to know how to get around and circumnavigate this major artery that was no longer available for getting in and out of the city. So, we contacted ESRI, to talk about putting up a Web application where citizens could easily see what routes were open and quickly create personalized from/to routes that could direct them from their home addresses to specified destinations within the greater Twin Cities area.

"The solution we wanted needed to incorporate attributes that were not available in the widely available public options such as MapQuest or Yahoo Maps or Google Maps," said Willenbring. "This is because the solution needed to include specific up-to-date city information about what streets were recently closed to traffic, what streets were primary detour routes, and what streets were going to have expedited traffic flow. The application needed to incorporate all of that data into a knowledgeable routing system for citizens to use."

Using the ArcWeb Services Flex API, ESRI senior software architect, Mansour Raad, quickly put together a two-tiered Web application that consists of a public-facing Web page, and an administrative Web page. The administrative Web page allows the city administrators to define barrier locations. These barriers changed from day-to-day because of disaster command-post needs. These continue to change in response to cleanup efforts. For example, a street that is closed in the morning may be reopened in the afternoon and another street closed, so a commuter's route to work could be very different than the return route. The city posts this dynamic data immediately on its Web site.

"It's very easy to make the changes," Willenbring noted. "That's one of the reasons that we like the ESRI products. We are a complete ESRI shop ... including our computer dispatch system for emergency responders is fully integrated ESRI."

The public-facing Web page is open to commuters who can see the most recent barrier updates and create personalized routes by either entering an address or clicking start and end points. A route is instantly calculated and drawn, so the user can print out the route and take it on the road. Citizens are navigating routes and publishing maps using the Web site.

"Working closely with ESRI, we were able to very quickly put out that application," says Willingham. "By the time the true commuting started the days following the bridge collapse, citizens were able to quickly understand the best route for them to take, over and above what was provided at the state level by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) because obviously MnDOT did not know what we were going to be doing to the downtown streets and to some of the alternate routes. "

Because ESRI has the infrastructure to house the application's database, including street data and barrier data, setting up the

GIS-enabled Web site and maintaining the data is one less worry for the city. Minneapolis city managers are assured that the application is running and the data is current 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A major reason for the fast turnaround rate is that the Flex-API handles all the cross-platform compatibility issues. Developers do not have to spend time building code for each supported browser type such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer, or Mozilla's Firefox.  Additionally, the fastest way to deploy applications with the API is for developers to use a version of XML, called Macromedia XML (MXML), to complete a variety of tasks and functions. For example, to create a simple map application with pan and zoom capabilities takes approximately five lines of code.

Creation and deployment of the two applications was fast. By Thursday noon, ESRI's Raad had put the database together and designed the middleware. It was tested, passed through staging, checked and rechecked, and deployed on the production servers.

On Friday morning, Raad built the administrative Web-page application that let city data administrators define values on the map, click on a particular location on the map and create barriers.  By noon, he had created a barrier editor tool that allowed users to type in an address or an intersection and input the barrier data to update the middleware information. Raad remained in constant contact with the city staff making certain that the applications were exactly what they needed. At one o'clock, Friday, Raad started developing the public-facing Web site and completed it by three o'clock. Testing was finished at four o'clock and by five o'clock the application was ready to be pushed to production. Minneapolis staff deployed it on the city's Web site. During the weekend, the city and ESRI professional services staff continued to tweak the applications. By Monday morning the Minneapolis community was putting the Web site to work creating personalized routes.

Willenbring notes, "ESRI professional services worked with us around the clock to get this application built and launched, which was fabulous. They clearly had exceptional expertise that our staff found very valuable."

Two months after the disaster, National Transportation Safety Board inspectors continue to go over every inch of the collapsed structure to exactly determine its cause and understand the course of events. Willenbring predicts that it will be at least a year before the city completes the clean up of tons and tons of concrete and metal. MnDOT has already proposed a bridge plan for new construction that includes a light-rail-ready bridge but the completion of any plan will take a long time. In the meantime, the city of approximately 373,000 citizens is open for business and every day commuters turn to the routing application to help them find their way around the rubble while the city gets back on its feet.

Barbara Shields writes for ESRI.