From downed power lines to flooded streets, storms are notorious for wreaking havoc in cities. While there’s no stopping Mother Nature, a new real-time, Web-based application is keeping citizens of Norfolk, Va., better informed about areas to avoid if they need to travel during a severe weather event.

Called STORM — System to Track, Organize, Record and Map — the program has enabled city workers to more accurately report and map damage from storms and simultaneously push that data out to residents online. The application also standardizes and permanently stores each reported incident for use in clean-up efforts later on.

In the past, various departments would collect their own data about storm damage and store it independently. But that practice became a problem for some city staff members, and the issue came to a head in November of 2009 after a nor’easter (a type of macro-scale storm along the East Coast with strong winds from the northeast that’s known for dumping heavy rain and/or snow in its wake, according to myskymom.com) caused damage throughout the city.

Fraser Picard, manager of Geographic Information Systems for the city of Norfolk, was attempting to map incidents during and after the 2009 storm. But he became frustrated because he received paper-based information from multiple sources and didn’t know whether the data was complete.

The situation spawned the idea to develop STORM.

“We didn’t have a good idea of all the damage in one location,” Fraser recalled. “It was all in different formats and it was confusing to put it all together. That was really the driving reason that I thought we needed something centralized to keep this data, so that it was in one format and one place.”

STORM Development

The first version of STORM launched in July 2011. The application was developed in-house by Fraser, a small team of programmers and other city personnel. Fraser came up with an initial 12 common storm items that the city needed to track, such as downed trees. He also identified the areas where damage primarily occurs in Norfolk, narrowing it down to street address, an entire city block or a street intersection.

Fraser’s idea was to limit data entry mistakes and make information uniform by having a system that recognizes specific city areas based off of geographic coordinates or a few letters of a street name. Then the program provides a drop-down menu for the feasible location options. With this type of interface, adding incidents to the map can be done quickly and accurately with less typing.

Behind the scenes, the system also captures which employee puts an item on the map, what computer was used, and the data and time of each entry. Norfolk tested the application, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011 that STORM was put through its paces.

Fraser said the program worked as advertised, but initial users — including the city’s Public Works Department, which made 2,600 entries on the system — had a few suggestions. One was to add more types of incidents that could be marked on the map. The other was to make that map public, so residents can see the data in real time as the city updates the system.

In addition, a separate database that kept tabs on the initial damage assessments to buildings was consolidated into STORM. This was done so that when city damage assessment teams go out to do their work, all the forms and information they need to send reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are readily available on one system.

The new version of the application — christened STORM 2.0 by Fraser — went live in June.

Future Upgrades

Although the latest version of STORM has yet to be tested by a major weather event, Fraser and his team are already thinking of more improvements to the program.

The future enhancement the group is most excited about eventually having a system that can operate independently, without access to the city’s network. Right now, any city employee can access STORM on the Web. The program is mobile, so whether employees access via a laptop at home or on the road with a smartphone, they can jump on the system and add information.

But the application is dependent on the city’s network being up. If the network goes dark, STORM is dead in the water. So the system’s design team is looking at creating a version of STORM that can reside on portable hard drives in case of an emergency.

“We can hand out a thumb drive and the entire application, and a copy of the database structure is already on there, and we can use that for data entry,” Fraser said. “When the network comes back up, we take those thumb drives and merge it all into one database.”

The city is also considering making the mapping part of the application more interactive by allowing people to add photos, video and documents to various events. But Fraser said that upgrade would probably take some time.

“That opens up another world of issues,” Fraser admitted. “Right now, I want to get STORM refined internally before we think about opening up to the public to enter data.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.