August 6, 2012 By Brian Heaton
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.”
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.
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