The problem boiled down to not everyone understanding what the engineers really needed.

“They kept asking for things that other folks were telling them to ask for — and no one was taking the time to really understand what their business was and how to give them solutions,” Perez said, referring to IT’s initial efforts to build an interface. “Instead of talking about technology, it was wiser to talk about the business and then come up with a solution to help them.”

Once the initial difficulties were ironed out, IT staff set to work. They custom-built the SCADA and the human-machine interface for FEWS. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. One of the key members of the city’s engineering team, Don Palmer, who did the design for the telemetry that relayed data wirelessly to the system, passed away during the middle of the development process.

Ultimately, Palmer’s work was completed by a couple of the city’s wireless technicians. By the end of the project, 35 people representing different internal work groups throughout the city had a hand in building FEWS. Approximately 10 vendors also contributed.

City GIS staff also built the predictive mapping application for the system. Those mapped and modeled results indicate in advance how severe flooding will be, when the worst water levels will be, and whether roads will become impassible. Those maps are given to emergency personnel to facilitate evacuations.

The total development cost for FEWS was approximately $10,000. In addition, because Austin no longer has to hire external consultants to complete the predictive models, each time one is completed it saves the city $50,000. According to the city, 13 watershed maps have been developed since the system went live, resulting in a $650,000 savings.

FEWS isn’t complete yet, however. While it’s fully functional, the public-facing end of the project remains unfinished. Originally once FEWS was live, residents were supposed to have access to the predictive modeling and automated features of the system.

Budget constraints have delayed that access, however. Perez said citizens have the ability to see some of the raw data, but they can’t see some of the automated mapping and which roads are closed in their area. Austin plans to someday make flood data accessible on mobile phones.

“We want to have a system that will push out to them and say, ‘Hey, you are in danger, get out of there right now,’” Perez said. “So that is the part that’s still missing.”

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.