CSIRO helps Human Services tackle disasters

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CSIRO helps Human Services tackle disasters
Screenshot of ERIC in use (courtesy of the CSIRO)

Emergency management tool ready for action.

A five-year partnership between the CSIRO and Department of Human Services (DHS) has produced ERIC, a web-based emergency management tool that will guide the department’s response to the coming summer disaster season.

The Emergency Response Intelligence Capability (ERIC) maps data from state based traffic and emergency services agencies against demographic details sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and DHS customer databases, and weather warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology. A limited version can be accessed by the public here.

ERIC is the result of a small organisation like the CSIRO experimenting on behalf of an ICT behemoth running some of the most critical systems in the country, said the program’s director Michael Kearney.

“Unlike the team at DHS, I have no idea what it is like to set up and operate a transactional system used to pay 20 million plus clients,” said Kearney. “But what the partnership has offered to the department’s emergency management branch is the opportunity to explore something that might not have made it onto the agenda otherwise.”

Human Services minister Jan McLucas announced the formal deployment of the ERIC tool late last week, following 12 months of development and a hands-on trial conducted between October and March last year.

The department’s Canberra-based emergency management team will use it to deploy resources to areas of greatest need and convenience when natural disasters strike.

“DHS have two issues to address following a disaster,” explained Kearney.

“The first is to try and resume existing operations. If the local DHS office is flooded then people in need are not able to go there for assistance.

“The second is the deployment and location of mobile offices. The tool helps them to decide the most appropriate place to locate the service in terms of safety and accessibility.”

ERIC automates a job that in the past took the DHS team three hours of copying and pasting from websites into a word document to complete.

“That process has now been reduced to about 20 minutes,” Kearney said.

The development of the tool was not without its challenges, however.

The OpenLayers mapping platform was selected as the basis for ERIC when it became clear that the developer team would not be able to meet the licensing demands of Google Maps. Google requires that tools developed using maps are made public, which was not possible owing to the privacy legislation governing DHS customer data.

The CSIRO’s developers were also forced to custom build processes that would standardise information being fed into the system from a variety of state-based RSS feeds, which Kearney likened to pre-Federation railway gauges in their variety.

Kearney and his team are now in the process of fortifying the performance of the application, which will continue to be hosted by the CSIRO, ahead of the start of the 2013-14 disaster period.

“Now that it is going to be used operationally we need to make it robust and reliable. We are duplicating the application onto our hardware here at CSIRO. We need to make sure we have a system that is available 24/7,” he said.

Eventually ERIC will become the responsibility of the DHS, but for the time being it will be hosted and delivered via the web by the CSIRO.

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