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Muma College of Business Researcher, Student Devise App that Allows Hurricane Evacuees to Register for Shelter Space

By Keith Morelli

Hurricane spaghetti model

TAMPA (April 27, 2020) -- Just as the COVID-19 curve is expected to flatten out in Florida, the 2020 hurricane season begins.

On June 1, the monster storms in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico begin awaken with the potential to bring major devastation to wherever they head. If one is destined for the Tampa Bay region, tens of thousands of residents will be ordered to evacuate their homes and head to the nearest shelter.

And research conducted by two USF Muma College of Business graduate students may smooth the way for evacuees to register at approved shelters and create a database through which emergency operations workers can track evacuation information and be able to tweak, in real time, shelter operations for maximum efficiency.

Planning for shelter use can be a challenge for officials because they may never know how many people will show up. Many evacuees head to inland homes of friends or relatives or they check into hotels that are on higher ground. The app being devised by Aitemir Yeskenov and Naman Mehta, graduate students in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department, may solve some of those problems. And the app may be ready to be utilized by Hillsborough County this hurricane season.

Yeskenov and Mehta say the app will allow evacuees to use their smart phones to register for space at the nearest shelter, helping to meet some of the planning challenges faced by county operations staff and hurricane shelter administrators.

The app will allow shelter administrators to see, in real time, anticipated arrivals at shelters, including the party sizes, genders, ages and other pertinent information to assist staff in the shelter planning process. The app will also allow emergency operations staff at the county level to see, in real time, relevant shelter information across their counties and be able to make logistical adjustments to change the status of shelters on the fly.

Hillsborough County emergency officials have been thinking of a digital approach for registering evacuees for a while, having been forced to rely on an inefficient approach –paper – to register people at the shelters.

“The problem is that it's a time-consuming and very tedious process and at the end of the day you are not even able to run statistics and reports with it,” Yeskenov said.

Emergency operations officials from Hillsborough County contacted ISDS Department Instructor Harvey Hyman, who agreed to involve students in the research and come up with innovative ways such an idea can be implemented.

Yeskenov and Mehta undertook the research, under Hyman’s supervision, and together they have been working on this application since the beginning of the year.

“At this point, we've built all of the functionality of the mentioned layers and we're about to test them,” Yeskenov said. “The app will change the whole shelter registration process as it will be so much easier to register people. Each person registers his or her own ‘evacuee group’ (could be group of friends or family) by going to the application website in the mobile phone browser.

“The data will be captured by our app and sent to our database,” Yeskenov said. “That way, we keep track of all the people that register online. So, instead of having huge lines of people waiting to register within the shelters, they are registered online before they even get to the shelter. The shelter staff members benefit by knowing how many people to expect and taxpayers benefit through the elimination of the reams of paperwork needed to document shelter goers.”

Hyman said the idea had been kicked around by local emergency operations officials since the fall of 2017 after Hurricane Irma.

He volunteered to take a look at the paper evacuation records left over from Hurricane Irma, combing through 10,000 documents chronicling the evacuation of more than 23,000 people, of which 2,000 were relevant to the shelter use, he said.

“Since then,” Hyman said, “there has been significant interest to create a usable mobile or web-based application to collect and organize evacuee information for shelter operational efficiency and effectiveness.”

Currently, Hyman said, emergency operations workers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties are pursuing a solution. Sarasota County has its own prototype that may go live this season, he said. The Pinellas County app is still in development.

“Hillsborough County is planning to go live with our prototype this June,” he said, ”if another solution does not come forward by then.”

Hyman said this research will result in a more efficient registration system that also eliminates the costs of logging evacuees in with printed forms.

“We get a chance to make a contribution to the community on behalf of the college,” he said. “We all win."