North Dakota's BMOC

Big man on computer automates disaster aid on the Web.

by / September 30, 1998
Thanks to the techno-heroic efforts of current college student Tom Sprynczynatyk and hundreds of volunteers in North Dakota, the United States has a Web-enabled software program that allows users to electronically donate items in times of disaster. The Donation Coordination Center is a Web site linked to the home page of the North Dakota League of Cities (NDLC). Its simple facade masks the tremendous efforts that Sprynczynatyk and others put into building the system.

Beau of the Ball

On the morning of April 24, 1997, most high-school seniors in Bismarck were sleeping late following a long night at the senior prom. As fellow prom attendees floated in and out of REM, Sprynczynatyk (sprin-chin-attic) was using his programming skills to help avert a catastrophe that was surprisingly rooted in generosity and compassion.

Following the devastating blizzards and subsequent floods that struck North Dakota during the winter of 1997, communities around the United States inundated the state with donations of clothing, medical supplies, money, transportation, toys, etc. Receiving, tracking, storing and distributing were among the many challenges in handling donations. State officials turned to Connie Sprynczynatyk, NDLC executive director, for help.

"During the week after the flood in Grand Forks, Gov. [Ed] Schafer, our adjutant general and the state coordinating officer, Keith Bjerke, asked me if the League would step in to help the state get a handle on all of the things other communities were doing to help the disaster survivors," Connie said. "They believed that the League's relationship with, and access to, all mayors and city staff would be helpful in bringing some coordination to a massive amount of activity."

Connie enlisted her son, Tom, to use his technology skills to help the relief effort. She wasn't going to let lack of sleep deter him from helping his fellow North Dakotans.

"I was first 'notified' of the need for the database the morning after prom, with about five hours of sleep," Tom said. "I went down to the donations hotline and was told of the need for a database to store and sort the hundreds of calls coming in."

The donations hotline was located at the North Dakota Donations Coordination Center at Fraine Barracks in Bismarck. There, Tom found that volunteers had assembled a bucket-brigade process to handle incoming phone calls for donation offers. Volunteers staffing the lines completed paper forms listing donor information and the types of goods being contributed, which a data-entry volunteer then typed into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

This process had too much room for error. Excel did not have the computer muscle to handle the increasing number of calls. The management team, composed of people from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), LNDC, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and various religious groups knew this process could not support their need for an efficient way to track, receive, inventory and distribute donations.

"The resulting problem was simple, but frustrating. If someone called with an offer to donate bottled water, children's books, bedding and canned food, and an agency called the hot-line looking for bottled water and bleach, it was difficult to sort through the information quickly," Connie said.

The challenge for Tom was to create an automated, database-enabled tracking system -- a resource registry through which several volunteers could enter information simultaneously. With an IBM-clone PC, Microsoft Access, and 650 entries in the Excel spreadsheet, Tom set about his work although he had never used Access.

"I talked with the FEMA reservists and local volunteers and we hammered out what was needed," Tom said. "I began creating the database, learning as I went, as I had never worked with MS Access before. Nine hours later I had a working database and had imported the data from the Excel spreadsheet."

The road to the program's successful deployment was bumpy. He called Microsoft's tech support for help.

"I wouldn't exactly call it help, as the tech told me after half an hour that what I wanted done couldn't be done, and then I promptly solved my own problem before hanging up," he said.

The Next Step

With the resource registry program running successfully, the volunteers faced another challenge. They needed a software solution to inventory the hundreds of thousands of items received from donors. Again, Tom's skills were put to use. On April 28, he flew to Fargo and toured the devastation.

"It was pretty shocking," said Tom. "An entire town the size of mine was devastated. During the cleanup, I visited some of the areas that were the hardest hit and was amazed by the extent of the damage." Following his tour, Tom created a database-driven program for the North Dakota National Guard to inventory donated items.

He eventually used HTML to create a Web site that would enable potential donors to review the list of donated items, then determine what to offer. He is updating the system so it will be a more powerful client/server application.

"I am currently discussing with the N.D. Division of Emergency Management about creating a much larger, more functional Web-enabled database for use in future emergencies," he said. "The back end will be converted from Access to SQL for greater scalability. The front end will be converted from Access 97 to MS Active Server Pages, which are able to run over the Web."

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