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CMU-designed disaster app could speed assistance to victims

| Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011

Six Carnegie Mellon University students have created a software application that can dramatically cut the time it takes social service agencies to identify and begin to assist families coping with disaster.

"This is one of the coolest things I've ever been involved in," said Julie DeSeyn of the United Way, which asked CMU to develop the application. "It's so simple, but I think it's going to make a big difference in people's lives."

The app, called The Disaster Response Mobile Assessment System, is in a testing phase, but DeSeyn said she hopes that within the next several months, agencies locally including the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, North Hills Community Outreach and Catholic Charities, will begin using the app on smartphones, iPads and other devices.

It is expected to cut the time at disaster sites needed to process information from people who need help. Right now, that can take days; the CMU app could reduce the process to as little as half an hour.

The student-developers are Aaron Gross, Lei Shi, Soundarya Rangaraj, Vidhya Venkatasubramanian, Xue Zhang, and Yao Yao, all seniors who worked on the app as part of a final class completed before they graduated this month.

DeSeyn said that in disasters, such as a flood or tornado, volunteers, mainly from the American Red Cross, would fan out across an affected area, write down information, such as how many members in a family, where they live and what their needs are.

In larger disasters, with many victims, it could take a volunteer up to three days to get the information into a database that could be shared with other emergency agencies. Dazed victims could give the same information multiple times to several agencies.

With the new application, DeSeyn said, a volunteer will collect data that will go directly into a database which local social service agencies can access.

"We certainly hope we can share this with other groups like ours across the country," she said.

Other agencies have developed similar apps, such as the Mobile Damage Assessment Device, but the CMU students said the software and hardware were too costly for local use or impossible to adapt.

Instead, DeSeyn said, development costs for the students totaled about $5,000; it'll cost between $75,000 and $100,000 for implementation and training, she added.

"We probably could not have done this five years ago in an affordable way," DeSeyn said.

Joe Mertz, an associate teaching professor at CMU's Heinz College, said that even if there's no Internet access at disaster scenes, volunteers can still input data into their portable device, and it can be downloaded as soon as a signal is available.

He said students, with about six weeks of work, set up the application so that there's as little typing as possible. Drop-down bars allow operators to select common information and there's a GPS to determine addresses.

DeSeyn said the application also can ensure that someone hasn't fallen between the cracks in the time following initial response.

"That would be our hope, that this application would allow for more efficient information sharing," said Lauren Chapman, spokeswoman for the local American Red Cross.

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