Gimme shelter

2008 GCN Award winner: HUD uses Web 2.0 technologies to find homes for people displaced by disaster<@VM>SIDEBAR: Portal design taps Web 2.0 tools

PROJECT: National Housing
Locator System (NHLS).


CHALLENGE: Providing
access to nationwide data
about housing available for
people displaced by presidentially
declared disasters,
such as hurricanes, floods
and tornadoes.


SOLUTION: The Housing
and Urban Development
Department, other federal
agencies and vendor Citizant
worked with state and local
housing authorities to build a
Web 2.0 system that provides
information from more
than 100 commercial and
government rental housing
databases.


IMPACT: Displaced families
have access to information
about affordable, appropriate
housing in suitable neighborhoods
near hospitals,
schools, grocery stores,
employers and nearby dialysis
centers.


DURATION: NHLS was
launched in January 2007
and has been used during
several disasters since then.
HUD officials plan to continuously
upgrade the system
and operate it indefinitely.


COST: HUD paid $1.1 million
for the initial version of
NHLS. Continuing costs vary
partly with the pace and
scale of national disasters,
during which Citizant can
increase its help-desk
support.

IN THE WAKE of the government's
underwhelming response to the needs of
people left homeless by hurricanes
Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005,
Congress mandated the creation of a unified
inventory of available temporary
housing.

The Housing and Urban Development
Department responded by building the
National Housing Locator System
(NHLS). Since January 2007, state, local
and federal officials have used the system
to help thousands of people find affordable
and appropriate housing soon after a
disaster.




'When Katrina hit, I was in charge, and
we all thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we
had a single source of information about
available apartments that all caseworkers
could use to access the various housing
databases that were available,' ' said Alfred
Jurison, now HUD's senior adviser for
public and Indian housing disaster response
and recovery operations, who led
the department's response team in late
2005.

NHLS uses an array of Web 2.0 features
built around the application's service-oriented
architecture. It provides caseworkers
access to information from more than
100 different government and commercial
housing data sources. Contractor Citizant
regularly adds housing data providers.

The system uses virtual private networking
to link to data from commercial
housing information providers such as
Apartments.com, Hotpads.com and
Rent.com. NHLS also provides data from
government agencies such as the Veterans
Affairs Department and the Federal
Emergency Management Agency.

Jurison, his HUD colleagues, FEMA officials,
state and local officials, and Citizant
agreed on various features of NHLS
in the months following the storms.

'We knew it had to be paperless, we knew it had to work on aircards [for wireless data transfer],
and we knew it had to work on PCs,' Jurison
said.

Jurison cited the project team's esprit de corps
and creativeness in solving unusual problems
with innovative approaches, even if they bent
federal regulations.

He said he drew on his experience in an inspector
general's office in directing staff on how to
speed the government's disaster response. He required
HUD employees to write memos of what
they did, especially at times when they had to
speed help to members of the public by skirting
regulations. Those records, created with accurate
information gathered at the time of the event,
could explain why the compelling needs of public
health and safety trumped regular rules.

Jurison's team, together with other HUD offices,
local public housing authorities and Citizant
met repeatedly in discussions that covered
NHLS' capabilities for locating housing by county,
radius from a given place and ZIP code,
among other criteria.

Citizant received a contract in late 2006 to
build NHLS. In January 2007, about 60 days
later, HUD and Citizant deployed the system.

The national scale of the emergency helped galvanize
the project team, Jurison said. 'There was
an attitude at the time that we need to do good,
and we need to do it quickly,' Jurison said. 'Some
of this stuff was done on a handshake.'

Subsequent audits of how HUD responded to
the technical challenges generated no negative
comments on department officials' decisions and
no recommendations for procedure changes, Jurison
said.

Ramesh Ramakrishnan, Citizant division director,
said the system used state-of-the-art Web
2.0 components and standards that HUD already
had to conserve time and money.

'I think the biggest challenge was interfacing
systems from several vendors to bring various elements
together,' Ramakrishnan said. 'I think of
it as a two-prong task. The first prong is the information.
It is available in different formats
from different vendors. Trying to bring that information
together is a challenge.

'The other challenge is to bring services together,'
he said.

Ramakrishnan said NHLS incorporates
geocoding features that provide, among other
services, the latitude and longitude of given addresses.
The NHLS team at Citizant used the
geocoding application already available in HUD
to save time and money.

This year, NHLS helped officials meet the
housing needs of evacuees from Hurricane
Ike, floods in the Midwest and tornadoes in
Florida.Housing and Urban
Development Department
officials envisioned the
broad outlines of a national
temporary housing database
while they scrambled
to meet the housing needs
of thousands of families
displaced by Gulf Coast
hurricanes in 2005, said
Alfred Jurison, senior
adviser for public and
Indian housing disaster
response and recovery
operations.




HUD and contractor
Citizant chose rapid application
development methods
to build a system that
taps information from more
than 100 incompatible
housing data sources. Using
commercially available
housing market data
reduced National Housing
Locator System design
costs by millions of dollars,
experts said.

However, in choosing to
use outside data, NHLS'
planners faced the problem
of extracting information
that existed in many formats.
They relied on the
widely used Multifamily
Information and
Transactions Standards
Extensible Markup
Language architecture to
snag a limited array of
information from the data
sources. 'You don't want to
invent everything from
scratch,' said Ramesh
Ramakrishnan, division
director at Citizant.

NHLS' planners chose to
use a data-centric serviceoriented
design so the system
could access information
that outside providers
update continuously, at no
cost to the government.
That fundamental design
choice contrasted with
more complex database
designs that could have
cost HUD as much as $10
million to $15 million,
NHLS planners said.
NHLS relies on a simple
form of Web service
Representational State
Transfer to provide a standardized
data format for
newly added information
sources. Using that format
allows newly recruited data
providers to quickly accommodate
NHLS' format
requirements.

NHLS designers built the
system with a service-oriented
architecture, Oracle
rapid application development,
virtual privatenetwork
tunneling and
mashups such as the Google
Maps application programming
interface. All of those
technologies help NHLS
generate overlay information
about schools, health
care facilities, public housing
authority offices and
other community features.

NHLS uses Asynchronous
Javascript and XML, which
provides a rich user interface,
Ramakrishnan said.
Choosing AJAX as a commenting
system and mapping
tool rather than alternative
technologies allows
NHLS to import a limited
amount of information
about an apartment, for
example, without forcing
the server to reload the
entire page. That process
reduces the bandwidth burden
on the server, he
added.

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