Last month, at the U.N. donors conference, the international community pledged $1.3 billion trillion to rebuild the Caribbean region hit by the hurricane. But how do they know how much the region needs to recover from the 5-magnitude hurricane that hit back-to-back September? Partly thanks to new Microsoft apps and software packages developed in collaboration with United Nations aid workers.
The results were impressed by experienced post-disaster professionals such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ugo Blanco. “It will change the way it is evaluated,” he said. It can be deployed anytime, anywhere. Within a few days we can have teams in any country in the world.
The simply named building damage assessment application played a crucial role in assessing the total destruction of the two islands of Barbuda and Dominica, respectively, under the influence of the imatinib and Hurricane Maria. “Building Damage Assessment” is optimized for tablets, allowing volunteers with minimal training at the site to quickly enter data about structural damage through a series of drop-down questions and collect photos for visual evidence. The data is stored offline and uploaded through the cloud when the tablet is back on the mobile or Wi-Fi range. At the same time, professionals can use Microsoft Power BI to analyze data to make tables of damage totals and detection trends, such as some types of building materials that are more likely to crash.
Microsoft developed a beta version of “Building Damage assessment” in 2015, but it was not until this year’s hurricane hit that UNDP returned to the technical level. The software giant has allocated 10 employees to the project and donated 70 Microsoft Surface tablets and keyboards and digital pens for the field, part of a 6.3 million-dollar post-hurricane charitable donation.
Unlike traditional software projects, customers-the United Nations-need the final product as soon as possible. “As people suffer, the speed of movement is very important and we think that the time required for normal application development will not work in this situation,” said Cameron Birge, Microsoft Humanitarian Response Manager, Cameron Berg. “In view of the need for rapid deployment by the United Nations Development Programme, this means that the team must respond more quickly as the challenges of information gathering and user experience arise.”
Building damage assessment is ready for one months after the storm. Each group includes a volunteer trained in building damage assessment applications, an architect or construction engineer who can assess the loss, and a local who understands the locals and local residents. Within 10-15 minutes, the team will determine the state of the building and gather as much information about the population as possible in 46 questions-family size, gender, age and occupation.
Adradene Walker is one of the volunteers who handle tablets. After a one-hour orientation seminar, she was sent to the scene and said it was easy to work with a new application. Walker has some experience in data entry as a secretary at Barbuda High School. She has a smartphone and a HP 3-in-1 laptop. Through the Pull-down menu, the application is designed to be used by people who are easy to read and write with mobile technology.
Within five days, the team assessed all buildings in Barbuda in a timely manner in order to hold donors meetings at United Nations Headquarters. Although initial reports after the storm showed that 90% of the buildings in Bubba were damaged, the damage assessment determined that about half of the buildings were ready to return, or that relatively small handyman repairs were required. The other half needs serious repairs or must be rebuilt from scratch. This data has helped the United Nations set a huge cost of $79 million for the maintenance and rebuilding of Barbuda housing inventories, which are the hard numbers necessary to make the pledging conference and can produce valuable results.
Of course, the use of technology in post-disaster scenarios is not without flaws, especially in the case of power outages. The generator continued to manage Barbuda’s life, while in nearby Antigua, it provided a stable place where reliable electricity and the internet returned at the end of the day. (Antigua And Barbuda is a double island country.) Dominica has proved a much tougher task. 30 teams need to evaluate 25,000 structures. UNDP estimated that it would take two months to complete the work there. As electricity slowly recovers, police stations are the only reliable source of electricity in remote areas. Tablets must also undergo difficult conditions-several overheating in the Barbuda sun-so the case is strict.
Fortunately, Microsoft Surface Pro 3 can work offline and still collect GPS coordinates. Roaming data on mobile phones allows applications to upload 30 questionnaires in 10 seconds to collect the most important data, while photos can be saved to WiFi connections. As the tools continue to work in Domenek, the United Nations Development Programme and Microsoft are already discussing improvements to the future user experience, such as further simplifying the questionnaires and minimizing the error-prone keyboard input in the high-pressure field.
The tool’s desktop data analysis also helps build local capacity in underdeveloped areas. “The building damage assessment provides us with information that the Government has never had before,” Blanco said, citing the failure of detailed information about the location of damaged buildings, the type of debris and the number of locations of the most common roof types. He described the user-friendly visual display as valuable to the technical staff of the housing sector, and was easy to understand for the Prime Minister or the president.
Most importantly, building damage assessment has proven that the digital approach is the future of disaster relief. “I have encountered many disasters. In the best case we have information that we can’t use-thousands of pages, we don’t have time to go through or enter Excel, “Blanc said. “We’re dealing with millions of data points. You can’t do this with paper.
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