Web Tool Ignites Wildfire Preparedness Efforts

A new Web application developed by Code for America is helping residents of Austin, Texas, better protect their homes from wildfires.

by / August 6, 2012

A new Web application is improving the wildfire survival chances of homes and neighborhoods throughout Austin, Texas.

Called Prepared.ly, the tool enables citizens to know the real-time risk of wildfire in their area and the steps they can take around the house to mitigate fire hazards. The application pulls data from the Texas Forest Service and National Weather Service specific to the location of a person’s home and allows users to share wildfire prevention tips.

Launched in late July, the Web app assists in the efforts of Firewise, a city-county wildfire awareness program in the region. Austin partnered with Code for America (CfA) — a nonprofit program that brings together volunteers and local governments to work on innovative IT projects — to build Preparded.ly.

Lt. Josh Portie, Firewise program coordinator with the Austin Fire Department, said what sets the application apart from other preparedness efforts is that it’s convenient and easy to use. Because the program is Web-based, a person can just sit in his or her living room with a laptop computer and go through the various tasks that city and county fire officials have created to prepare a home against wildfire.

“We’ve sent our message out in the media … but being able to get it out to a bigger audience on the Web is what’s really critical,” Portie said.

Emily Wright Moore, one of the CfA fellows who helped build the Web application, agreed.

“There’s information [out there], but the information isn’t as widely accessible as it could be,” she said regarding wildfire precautions. “So we moved forward and looked at different ways to solve that problem. We pitched a number of ideas. Through feedback, we ended up building Prepared.ly.”


Development


Although the application isn’t quite finished yet, it took a few months to get Prepared.ly online, according to Moore. She explained that pulling the various data feeds was a bit of a challenge that required working hand-in-hand with several organizations.

In some cases, the work was easy. For example, pulling the location of fire stations in Austin was a matter of accessing the city’s open data portal and connecting to the structured data. On the other hand, finding information on what local areas had bans against burning was more difficult. For that, Moore and another CfA fellow, Joe Merante, needed to scrape from unstructured data on the Web.

Portie said the Texas Forest Service has a similar online application to Prepared.ly called the Texas Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (TxWRAP). But while that program is an entry into various GIS layers, Prepared.ly’s intent is to be more accessible and actually define whether a user is currently at risk. Prepared.ly also is designed to give tips — such as cleaning out a home’s gutters — that have a direct impact on wildfire damage mitigation.

“It doesn’t require you to look at a map or distinguish between different colors or anything like that,” Portie said. “It just says you’re at high or minimal risk and here are a couple of steps you can do this week or get up from the couch now and do. If you have any other questions, there’s a mechanism in there to shoot out an email to us to come down and follow-up.”

In addition, Prepared.ly features a resource page so that users wanting more detailed technical information can visit TxWRAP or contact Portie directly. He’ll schedule home visits in order to provide suggestions on how to better prepare a home or an entire community from wildfires.


Future Enhancements


Austin communities have been a big part of Prepared.ly’s development. Before the official launch in July, the program was online and active for a couple of months. Portie had two or three neighborhoods use the application on a limited basis to provide feedback on what other features they’d like to see incorporated.

Portie said one of the biggest things he’s trying to do is add more preparedness tasks that residents can do, and possibly add a FAQ section to the application. A Spanish version of Prepared.ly is also under consideration.

Moore added that she’s received a suggestion to make Prepared.ly more of a neighborhood social tool that can connect with Facebook so that users can make defined groups. But she wasn’t sure that was the right direction to take the application.

“We’re kind of concerned that it might be problematic,” Moore said. “If people can see what progress you’re making and you’re neighbors can see what you’re doing [in regard to wildfire preparedness] … it may not be well received.”

A mobile version of Prepared.ly is under consideration. Right now, the application is optimized for the Web and while it can be accessed using a mobile browser, there is no stand-alone app available for download.

That may change in the future, but Moore wasn’t optimistic about it. Some residents have asked for an iPhone app, but Moore has concerns over whether Austin would have the staff to maintain an iPhone app to Apple’s specifications after her and Merante’s CfA fellowships conclude in November.

“Since it’s a homeowner tool, I assumed most owners will be at home, so it hasn’t been the first priority,” Moore said of designing a dedicated mobile app for Prepared.ly. “But I do think it’d be really great to make it a native app. We’ll just have to see how it goes as we move forward.”
 

Brian Heaton

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

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