With Experience Builder, we can develop an application that's useful to people, whether they're working on a mobile device, an iPad, a laptop, or the big screen in the NRCC. It gives us flexibility so that we can create an app that works for everybody regardless of how they're accessing it.
Volunteer-Based GIS Organization Creates Apps for Disaster Response with Web App Development Solution
From hurricanes to earthquakes and epidemics, rapid and effective action is needed to save lives during any major emergency event. Situational awareness plays a critical role in quickly deploying and administering emergency personnel and services, and location data is vital to these operations. To serve emergency management groups and help residents impacted by disaster, a project called PhotoMappers was established to provide emergency responders and the public with timely and valuable information.
PhotoMappers is an ongoing partnership between URISA's GISCorps, the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation, and CEDR Digital Corps. GISCorps draws from its database of more than 7,000 volunteers and leaders from 133 countries to assist in the assessment and recovery operations after natural and human-made disasters. PhotoMappers, currently in its fifth year, brings US-based volunteers together to scour social media and news outlets to find publicly shared photos of on-the-ground conditions and damage in areas affected by natural disasters.
The crowdsourced photos help provide an additional source of situational awareness for emergency managers—such as government agencies and emergency response organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC)—as well as residents, who may want to see the damage in their community.
NAPSG Foundation provides all data at no charge. To support both the PhotoMappers Public Portal—for emergency managers and the public—and the Volunteer Portal for PhotoMappers volunteers, GISCorps needed a streamlined way to make changes to the portals and have them viewable across different devices.
GISCorps used software designed to easily create web apps and pages to create mobile-friendly versions of the Volunteer and Public portals. The new apps have made operations and maintenance more efficient for the GISCorps admin team and improved situational awareness for emergency responders, giving response groups the location data they need to provide aid during a crisis.
When an emergency occurs or a significant weather event is imminent, NAPSG Foundation alerts GISCorps and submits a request for assistance. GISCorps project managers activate a team of volunteers and create a new incident ID in the Volunteer Portal, providing them with guidance about what types of images and data are needed. A typical project will have between 10 and 40 volunteers.
For example, according to GISCorps program coordinator Holly Torpey, volunteers look for storm preparation activity on the ground and issues like evacuation routes and shelters before the storm. The volunteers then transition to finding photos of things like property damage and street flooding as the storm hits. Volunteers geolocate each photo as precisely as possible, using clues in the images and the accompanying text, and specially trained GISCorps admin team members enrich each photo with a building-damage score and one or more FEMA Community Lifelines classifications. Photos automatically appear in the Public Portal as they are processed by the admin team in the Volunteer Portal.
URISA's GISCorps, the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation, and CEDR Digital Corps
Build a Volunteer Portal that would allow volunteers to provide accurate location data about disaster photos and a Public Portal that can properly display the information on any screen size. Both web apps need to have a streamlined view for seamless maintenance of data across the two portals.
ArcGIS Experience Builder
A revamped PhotoMappers Volunteer Portal to allow streamlined and efficient uploading and maintenance of data and the PhotoMappers Public Portal, designed to provide a mobile-optimized view of disaster information to emergency managers and residents in the area.
"The application gives emergency managers an intuitive sense of what's happening on the ground, and that immediate sense of situational awareness is the goal of the application. Users can zoom in on an area on the map and then see a gallery of photos that were posted of on-the-ground conditions in that storm," says Torpey.
An additional challenge was that the original Public Viewer app was not mobile-device friendly or easily viewable on smaller screens like tablets because of the amount of information that was displayed, which was a limitation of the dashboard tool previously in use. Torpey says that having the app work on multiple screen sizes was very important, especially because many volunteers work on laptops.
The GISCorps admin team also wanted the Public Portal and the Volunteer Portal to have a streamlined view. Torpey explains that the previous dashboard tool had too many separate maps and apps embedded in the Volunteer Portal dashboard tabs, which made maintaining and making updates across the portal a challenge.
The GISCorps team selected ArcGIS Experience Builder to revamp the existing Volunteer and Public portals for PhotoMappers. Experience Builder is designed to transform data into interactive, mobile-optimized web apps. Erin Arkison, a GISCorps Core Committee member, felt Experience Builder would be a great fit for the project and contribute to building a more cohesive app for volunteers. It would also provide increased functionality such as the ability for admin team members to more easily place text where they want.
"[With the new app] we could put in how-to and instructional videos and all the tools that [people] need to be successful as a PhotoMappers volunteer. So when a volunteer [comes] in, basically we can just send them one link to get started," says Arkison.
Each of the two new Experience Builder apps has three pages, each presenting the data in a different way: the original dashboard-type view; geoenriched photos and map only; or a view that enables users to see and filter data based on FEMA Community Lifelines, building damage scores, and other categories. Community Lifelines categories are focused on specific areas of impact such as food, water, shelter, transportation, and energy. These distinct views enable users to get the information they need based on their roles.
Tari Martin, a director at NAPSG Foundation, says Arkison and the rest of the GISCorps leadership team have done a great job of making the app easily accessible.
"The data is all publicly available, including the historic data," says Martin.
From providing a more responsive view to enabling easy customization and testing, Experience Builder has improved the user experience for PhotoMappers volunteers and the GISCorps admin team. The new experience has fostered collaboration among GISCorps volunteers and allowed them to map 600 photos in one to two weeks during a recent activation.
According to Torpey, the ability for the app to be displayed on various screen sizes—and for app administrators to customize what gets displayed on them—was a huge benefit of switching to Experience Builder. Also, users can still pan and zoom to filter the photo gallery by map extent, allowing them to get an intuitive sense of the spatial distribution of different types of damage.
"It's just easier to sort of grasp what's going on than [by] looking at individual photos one at a time or looking at numbers in a table. It just gives you an immediate understanding of what's going on in a particular area. And that's the value of it, I think, to most of the people who use it," says Torpey.
Maintenance of the app is more efficient with Experience Builder, as the admin team only makes edits in one place. Previously, edits had to be made in every app embedded in the dashboard. Now, Torpey says changes are made in Experience Builder and not across multiple apps, streamlining the back-end administration process and saving time.
"It's definitely improved or reduced the amount of time that it takes us to set up for a storm and to respond if we find a glitch somewhere or there's some issue that we need to change," says Torpey.
Testing is also simplified with Experience Builder. Arkison says she can now test out changes and see how it's going to look without pushing them live. Arkison explains that she has unpublished pages on the Volunteer Portal that she keeps hidden until ready.
In addition, having apps and widgets hosted in one place has made it easier for viewers to find data. Martin says that now that all data is in one place in Experience Builder, she just sends one link to requesters.
The ability to customize the apps with Experience Builder has given the admin team more control over both the content and the aesthetic properties of the application. For example, Arkison says the team can easily change the app's colors, move URLs, or change blocks of text.
The PhotoMappers project has given volunteers an opportunity to help in times of crisis, which is why volunteers continue to participate, says Torpey. Martin is very pleased with the help it has given key customers like FEMA, and she says GISCorps has done an excellent job of evolving the apps to meet the needs of volunteer and emergency management.
"The one thing that I have seen is that this project has been something that the emergency management community has started to rely on. So it has become a data source that all levels are looking to use," says Martin.
Jeff Baranyi, an emergency management tech lead on the Esri public safety team who works with GISCorps and NAPSG Foundation, adds, "I think this is an example project where that promise of social media for providing situational awareness—especially in the early phases of a disaster—has really come into play and been a real value for the community."