After Sandy Success, Grey Wall Grows

Thomas MacMillan PhotoWhen Superstorm Sandy struck, the city’s emergency operations center wasn’t stuck using dead-tree technology. It had cutting-edge, locally developed software to coordinate a citywide response—a tool that’s now spreading to 29 other nearby towns.

The web-based software, called VEOCI (vee-OH-chee), allows emergency workers to better communicate with one another in real time, using smartphones, tablets, and computers.

It’s a quantum leap forward from passing handwritten telephone messages from desk to desk, the way New Haven’s emergency operations center (EOC) used to.

VEOCI was created by Grey Wall, a local tech-startup whose star is on the rise. A new regional Homeland Security grant from the federal government includes $300,000 to bring Grey Wall’s VEOCI to all 30 municipalities (including New Haven) in Connecticut’s south central region

The region “covers a million people. It’s a huge deal for us,” said Nathaniel Ellis, a co-founder at Grey Wall.

Ellis sat in a back room at the company’s third-floor headquarters at 129 Church St., where the walls are lined with sheets of white plastic scribbled with dry-erase lists and strategies. The office is a stone’s throw from the New Haven EOC, which has become VEOCI’s test kitchen.

Ellis founded the company in 2011 with a half-dozen other refugees from General Electric. The group was led by Sukh Grewal (for whom the company is named). A former nuclear engineer, Grewal and others worked for years building tools to help people at GE collaborate better. They built a system to share files and documents, before Dropbox and Google Docs made such tools widely available

“We realized we worked pretty well as a team,” Ellis said. That realization helped the group have the courage for to leave GE in the midst of a terrible recession.

They decided to focus on the problems that GE had not solved so well: handling a crisis. Whenever an IT incident occurred—a database goes down, for instance—people all over the world would jump on the phone, a process that was extraordinarily inefficient, Ellis said. “We decided to build something that would solve that problem.”

With the help of the Economic Development Corporation, the young company connected with the city. In July, Grey Wall showed VEOCI to the mayor and his staff. They had recently been through “Snowmageddon” during the winter of 2010/2011, and were primed to discuss emergency operations improvements.

The EOC had a problem, Ellis said. He pulled out a slip of paper exemplifying the issue—a form to record incoming calls during an emergency.

Say someone calls in with a report of a downed wire. The person taking the call would take down the relevant information and then walk the report over to the fire department’s desk, where someone would call out to firefighters in the field and have them secure the area.

“We typically had done everything by hand,” said Rick Fontana, deputy EOC director.

A pen-and-paper system like that has all kinds of drawbacks, Ellis said. Duplicate calls can’t be tracked. Logging and distributing the information was limited. Follow-up was challenging. Getting any kind of big-picture sense of what problems were occurring, and where, required time-consuming tallying.

During Tropical Storm Irene, “we had nearly 600 single entries on paper,” said Fontana. With nothing but a pile of paper, you can’t easily tell what’s redundant, he said. Someone might call from 1187 Chapel St. to report a problem. Then someone might call from 1202 Chapel St. to report a problem. It’s likely the same issue, but “you don’t know that until you’re looking at a screen in front of you,” Fontana said.

The city needed an interactive “living document” that evolves during the course of an emergency and allows workers and supervisors to quickly and easily share micro- and macro-level data, including images, field reports, and maps, Ellis said.

Turning to a laptop, Ellis opened an internet browser to show what VEOCI can do. The basic interface (pictured) is like a chat room on steroids, with a main column in which users can share messages with each other via smartphone or tablet or computer. Users can submit images and upload documents.

The city put VEOCI through its paces during Superstorm Sandy, handling over 900 reports of problems—not on pieces of paper this time but fed into a computerized system.

“It’s just an unbelievable tool,” said Fontana, the deputy EOC head. He said he’s never seen anything like it.

The system is not designed to be open to the general public, Ellis (pictured) said. During a blizzard, for example, when people call in with problems—a collapsed roof, an unplowed street, a traffic light out—VEOCI leads staff members fielding the calls through the questions to ask, so that the information is standardized.

As storm problems are reported, the relevant staff receive their assignments. A public works staffer, for instance, could get an email notification with all the necessary information on an unplowed street, including a Google map and response options.

Staffers in the field can also submit updates and report problems via mobile device. “You can see where they’re messaging from,” Ellis said. Map icons show their location in the field, so a supervisor can ask, for instance, why a plow driver reports he’s out clearing streets when the map says he’s in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot.

The main column in the web interface is flanked by columns that allow users to sort messages by thread—created automatically when a new issue is reported—and to break out into “side-rooms” for more focused discussion between, say, people working just on downed trees or emergency shelters. Users can also sort messages and automatically generate Google maps showing, for example, where all the flooded restaurants are after a storm, so that the health department knows where it needs to go make inspections.

Ellis (pictured) demonstrated how the system also allows users to contact people en masse with a telephone call. Logged in as a fictional user, he sent out a hypothetical message: “Snow plow blocking Elm. Plan accordingly.” Immediately, his cell phone rang, along with phones throughout the office. He picked it up and switched it to speakerphone. An electronic voice said: “Snow plow blocking Elm. Plan accordingly.”

Ellis said that kind of one-click telephonic announcement is way better than the alternative. Old-fashioned “phone trees” can be inefficient and slow.

The same system can be used to send out a “check-in request” to all the members of a team. Ellis demonstrated: his phone rang again. He pressed one to indicate that he was still alive out in the field and the status of his fictional user immediately changed to green on the web interface. Other staff members, playing along with the demonstration, did the same.

New Haven has been a supportive partner in VEOCI’s development, Ellis said. The company comes out with a new iteration of the software every two weeks. Along with putting it to use in the city’s EOC, Grey Wall uses VEOCI to run its own operations, with “rooms” devoted to things like marketing and development. It’s a process that has allowed it to quickly “work out the kinks.”

The company now has over 10 customers—including Yale and Tweed airport—with about 30 more in the pipeline, Ellis said. The contract to work with all 30 towns in south central Connecticut marks a big development, he said. “They want what New Haven was able to do.”

In an era of climate-change, as cities experience more frequent and more powerful weather events, Grey Wall may have hit upon a growth industry.

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posted by: East Rocker on January 29, 2013  3:45pm

Sounds like a great idea.  It also sounds like a closely related product to SeeClickFix.  Competition?  Or merger opportunity?

posted by: PH on January 29, 2013  5:02pm

@ East Rocker

Had the same thought as I was reading this.  Sounds like they could potentially have some good overlap.