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Federal surveyors use smartphone apps to review Missouri River flood damage

Army Corps of Engineers teams inspecting flood damage along the Missouri River used to scribble down detailed directions to where they'd found seepage in a certain levee or turbid water bubbling up on the landward side of a dike so damage could be spotted by the next surveying team.

Inspectors' notes would describe the damage in relation to a particular highway mile marker and offer alternative directions in case roads were washed out or inaccessible, said Ted Streckfuss, the Corps' Omaha District deputy for project management.

More recently, surveying teams keyed data into a mobile computer and emailed the data to the Omaha District headquarters when they returned to their field offices.

Now survey teams have a new tool -- a smartphone application for Google's Android operating system that automatically links photos, video and text reports on flood damage with Global Positioning System information and sends it back to Omaha headquarters instantaneously. Streckfuss said the mobile app has been especially useful during the current Missouri River flood that has drenched hundreds of thousands of acres of Midwest farmland and caused up to $1 billion in damage.

The new app, which the Corps' calls a mobile information collection application, or MICA, was developed at the Corps' Engineer Research and Development Center in Mississippi and has been deployed in some form or other at all the Corps' main offices, Streckfuss said. Each office retrofits the app to gather specific data sets, such as different types of property damage after a hurricane or road damage after a tornado.

In the case of the Omaha District, five or six teams of surveyors are deployed each day along different parts of the 700,000-square-mile Omaha District with about 25 smartphones, Streckfuss said. Each damage report back to Omaha includes a picture or video of flood damage plus a GPS indicator showing where the damage is and often a text explanation of anything the picture doesn't show.

Information from those reports automatically becomes a data point on a flood chart back in Omaha that looks something like a Google Earth map, Streckfuss said, with thousands of pinpoints representing different pieces of data.

By looking at the constantly updated map, staff back in Omaha are able to make real-time determinations about the extent of flood damage and the potential costs to fix it, as well as where to concentrate damage assessment teams during the coming days and hours.

Surveyors who return to a previously inspected site can use the phone's GPS to locate and update earlier damage assessments without following complicated directions.

"What makes it especially beneficial is it removes a lot of the unknowns," Streckfuss said. "When we go out and evaluate the system after the flood . . . we can go back to those thousands of data points that we monitored and we don't have to guess, was it mile marker 27 or 28."

Federal and state agencies have increasingly been turning to customized apps for commercially produced smartphones to speed up work processes without incurring the cost of developing something wholly new. Indiana school bus inspectors, for example are using smartphone apps to send in damage reports.

Many federal agencies, though, have been wary about trusting sensitive data to relatively less-secure but more app-friendly platforms such as Apple's iPhone or smartphones using the Android operating system.

The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for inspecting nearly 1,000 miles of levees along the Missouri River, about 250 of them in the Omaha District, which stretches between Montana and Nebraska. State and local government "sponsors" are responsible for the levees' operations and maintenance.

Flooding along the Missouri began in June, caused mostly by heavy rains, and is expected to continue for several more weeks.

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