EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – December 4, 2002

A Tour of the Pilot Disaster Management Initiative

Art Slavinski
Disaster Management Interoperability Services

Margie Dickerson
Appian Corporation

Brandi Miller, Dave Epperson, and Sumeet Luthra
FEMA Disaster Management Initiative Program Office

Amy Sebring
Moderator, EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available upon request to [email protected]

[Welcome / Introductions]

Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our session today is an introduction and tour of DisasterHelp.gov.

[Slide 1]

In addition to our two presenters, we also have online with us today Sumeet Luthra and Brandi Miller with Dave Epperson in the background, all knowledgeable individuals from FEMA who will help us in responding to your questions later on.

As I mentioned, we are going to be covering quite a bit of material today and Margie Dickerson from Appian Corporation has prepared a tour, not only of the parts you may have already looked at, but also some parts you may not have seen yet.

But first, Art Slavinski with formerly CMI-Services, now Disaster Management Interoperability Services, will begin with a few words about the project purpose and background. Art, welcome back to the Forum, and will you start us off please.


Art Slavinski: Thanks, Amy. As mentioned in the announcement for this program today, DisasterHelp.gov was fielded to the Nation on 25 November 2002. This portal was established under the President's Management Agenda where he states, "I will expand the use of the Internet to empower citizens, allowing them to request customized information from Washington when they need it, not just when Washington wants to give it to them."

FEMA was assigned this project by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), who is leading the charge to expand e-government portals. This portal will ultimately provide support disaster assistance and crisis response. The site will also provide citizens with a single location for obtaining all publicly available information on disaster preparedness and response, make this service available via multiple access channels, and will minimize the impacts of disaster-inflicted damage.

DisasterHelp.gov will also maximize the availability of information to responding agencies by aggregating their disaster management operations and simplifying access to services offered, ease the strain of content management, disseminate "best practices" information for managing Government IT assets and establish cost containment measures for future system improvements.

There are two elements to the disasterhelp.gov site -- a public portal and a government portal. In our tour this afternoon, you will see examples of both aspects. I would now like to introduce our 'tour guide,' Ms. Margie Dickerson of Appian Corporation. Appian Corporation specializes in building massively scalable systems quickly and has previously built the Army Knowledge Online and Navy Knowledge Online portals.

Margie Dickerson: Thanks Art. Today I will focus on the following three areas:

  1. An overview of the portal's major features;
  2. Customization capability within the portal; and
  3. Community page creation and maintenance.

Before I dive into my discussion, I want to briefly touch on the definition of a portal. A web portal is meant to serve as a gateway to information and other applications. It should be a one-stop location where you can obtain any and all resources out there pertaining to disaster help.

A portal is also a place where you can go to collaborate with other users on topics of interest to you and your community. As you will see in the following demonstration, the DisasterHelp.gov portal provides both a place to go for information and a place to join forces with other users across the country to share ideas and resources.

DisasterHelp.gov will allow you to:

  • Gather information relevant to you into a single source.
  • Communicate directly with other members of the DisasterHelp and Emergency Responders community.
  • Download and Upload files from the DisasterHelp Enterprise Collaboration Center.
  • View news and headlines from multiple sources.
  • Chat and meet online with other DisasterHelp users.

Another definition of importance is that of a channel. Channels act as windows to different information within the portal. They are displayed as smaller sections of a portal page. A good example of this is the National Threat Level Channel that is on the home page of the portal.

[Slide 2]

Finally, you need to understand the four levels of access that are available. First, an unregistered user will have access to all site content with the exception of the customization and collaboration tools, which we will discuss later.

Second, when a user submits the registration information through the site, he/she will then gain access to the personalization features that we will also view later.

Third, when a registered user is validated, he/she will then gain additional access to the collaboration tools, including instant messaging and knowledge centers.

And finally, an Administrator has all of the above, as well as privileges to create and maintain community pages. Regarding the latter two designations, validated user and administrator, we are still working out the exact mechanism by which these privileges may be requested. In the meantime, you can send your request to be a full validated user and/or administrator to me at [email protected].

Overview of Portal's Major Features - Search:

DisasterHelp has three main ways to search related content and documents throughout the Internet.

1. The Portal Search on the left side bar of the home page opens up to a Links Search that has the capability to pull back thousands of results. In addition to using a search term, you can refine your search based on disaster type, location, role, and disaster phase.

[Slide 3]

2. The Advanced Search on the left side bar of the home page opens up to a search capable of searching by keywords in links, documents, author name, and other metadata.

[Slide 4]

3. And finally, the Quick Links Search on the left side bar of the home page allows you to submit searches based on an intricate set of topics that have been constructed based on users most searched subjects.

[Slide 5]


DisasterHelp pulls news headlines from a variety of sources. You are also able to create your own news channels to pull headlines from a designated news source on any key words you wish.

[Slide 6]

The Disaster Headlines on the front page and the home page are pulled dynamically from the FEMA Web site. The Active National Disasters channel on the front page and home page is another live feed of news. This area of DisasterHelp allows you to choose any current Active National Disaster and see up to the minute information from FEMA.

[Slide 7]


Communities are the true content of DisasterHelp. Each community has an unlimited amount of space on DisasterHelp, with which they have endless opportunities. We will cover this further in the community administration portion of the discussion.

As a quick overview, community pages are pages where communities can post content they want to share with the entire DisasterHelp user base. The communities are located on the left side bar as you travel throughout the portal.

Currently, the community pages are divided into four sections: Disasters, Regions, Responders, and Partners. We expect the list of communities and sub-communities to expand rapidly.

[Slide 8]

Instant Messenger and Chat:

DisasterHelp Instant Messaging (IM) and Chat draws the Disaster Management community closer together, allowing simple, real-time communication in an industry that relies on rapid response. DisasterHelp IM connects Verified Users with one another for a one-on-one chat session, making it easy to share knowledge in an efficient manner. DisasterHelp Chat allows multiple users to converse in the same chat room making DisasterHelp Chat capabilities ideal for group meetings on important, time-sensitive issues.

[Slide 9]

Collaboration Center:

The Enterprise Collaboration Center (ECC) is a powerful tool that allows you to share documents with members of your community and other communities. The ECC acts as a central repository for the knowledge of your community, making these documents easy to view and making it easy to set access permissions for sensitive documents.

[Slide 19]

Individual users have their own area of the ECC to which they can upload private files. They can also create their own Knowledge Centers where they can upload files to be shared with a team or group.

[Slide 10]

Community administrators have an unlimited amount of space they can use to upload files and create Knowledge Centers.

[Slide 11]

There is a wide range of security that can be applied to the Knowledge Centers and subfolders to restrict access to documents. Security ranges from locking down the Knowledge Center to only a set number of people that the administrator lists, to allowing any registered DisasterHelp user access to the documents.

[Slide 20]

Customization Capability within the Portal:

Users have the ability to create their own customized pages and channels at DisasterHelp.gov. With a customized personal page you can place all of the information that you care about in a single location. Each time you logon and view your personal page you will see all of the channels that you have placed there, giving you quick and easy access to information that is important to you.

Registering and creating a customized personal page allows you to see what you want with only one click. All of the functionality discussed below is accessible by clicking on the "Customize" tab within DisasterHelp.

Creating a Personal Page:

STEP 1: Enter the name of your new page and click the submit button.

[Slide 12]

STEP 2: Check your new Personal Page in the portal - After you create your Personal Page, your portal view will reload, and your new Personal Page will appear as the last tab along the top. If you click on the tab, your new page will load but will be empty.

STEP 3: Add channels to your Personal Page - To add content to your new Personal Page, click on the link to "Personal Page Content" in the Customization menu. You will then be redirected to "Personal Page Content," where you can select your channels and modify the layout of your Personal Page.

[Slide 13]

Adding Content to your Personal Page:

STEP 1: Select a Channel Category - Channels are organized into common categories to help you find them quickly. Select the channel category option that best suits your needs

STEP 2: Select a Channel - After selecting a Channel Category to view, the available channels in that category appear under Step 2. You will then be able to find the channel you want and add it to your Personal Page using the "Add to Left" or "Add to Right" button.

STEP 3: Organize Your Page - After you have added a channel to your Personal Page in Step 2, the channel will then appear in Step 3 in the column you specified. You can then choose to move it up or down relative to the other channels in your Personal Page, or delete it entirely by clicking on the channel.

Be sure to click "Save Changes" once you have finished editing the layout of your page. After you have clicked "Save Changes," your Personal Page will automatically reload in your portal view with your changes reflected.

Creating Custom Channels:

In addition to selecting from the common list of DHelp channels, you have the option of creating Custom Channels to add to your Personal Page. The "Custom Channels" option allows you to create channels using one of two standard channel templates: Headline or Web page. You can also delete any Custom Channels you create.

[Slide 14]

STEP 1: Select New Channel Template: Headline Channel - Displays news headlines available on the web on a topic that you choose, or Web page Channel - Creates a channel that displays a separate Web site directly in the portal.

STEP 2: Fill in the necessary information: Headline Channel - Keywords that you would like the news source to produce stories about or Web page Channel - The exact URL that you would like to appear in the window. After creating a custom channel, you must go back to the Page Layout area of your personal page and add the channel to your page.

Changing Dhelp Appearance:

Portal channels are divided into four parts, each of which you can modify as to background color, font or font color. You can set your preferences by selecting Appearance from the Customize page.

As you select each of these colors and fonts, you can preview the results of your selections in the Channel Preview window. Be sure to click "Save Changes" once you are finished selecting your Appearance options. Please note that your changes will not take effect until you have clicked "Save Changes".

Change Password and User Profile:

The final piece of customization within DisasterHelp is your ability to update your User Profile and password by selecting User Profile from the Customize page. User Profile information is not made public, and is never provided to any outside source.

I have created a personal page with news Headlines, a Web page channel of www.google.com, and some other channels of interest.

[Slide 15]

Community Page Creation and Maintenance:

As mentioned earlier, communities have an unlimited amount of space within DisasterHelp. Communities can create as many pages and sub-pages as they wish. Communities also have unlimited space within the ECC. They can create as many Knowledge Centers as they wish.

Communities within DisasterHelp are currently organized into 54 top-level communities. These top-level communities are on the left side bar of the portal. They include Tornado, Fire Personnel, Region I, and USDA as some examples. These 54 communities can now have as many sub-communities as they wish. For example, Region I might want a sub-community for each of the states in the Region. Then each of those states might want a sub-community for each of its major cities. The possibilities are endless.

All of the following functionality is accessible by clicking on the Admin tab within DisasterHelp. We will now briefly cover community page administration although we do not have time today to go into much detail. Please note the Admin Console Help option when we display the Admin tab slide in a moment.

Creating a Community Page:

There are two ways to create a community page. An administrator can create a community page from scratch', or they can create a "template" of a page that automatically populates the page with some default content'.

With any community page, 4 channels are automatically generated: Leader Message Channel, Group Message Channel, Links Channel and Calendar Channel. Here is the view of Create a Page Lite where instructions are provided.

[Slide 16]

Editing a Community Page:

Once your page is created, editing a community page is very similar to adding and removing channels from your own personal page. Once you have selected your page, you will get a page layout screen almost identical to the one in the personalize area.

[Slide 17]

Creating and Editing Community Channels:

Communities have seven different types of channels that they can create and edit.

[Slide 18]

1) Leader Message Channel - encapsulates information about a community's top leader. This channel typically displays four pieces of information: A picture of the leader; The leader's name and position; A statement or quote from the leader; A link to a web site containing more biographical information about the leader.

2) Group Message Channel - The Group Message Channel, also known as the Community Announcement Channel, is used to provide updates to the community like a 'news flash'. The Group Message Channel displays a series of these messages in chronological order.

3) Links Channel - A Links Channel is a channel that contains a list of links to outside web sites.

4) Web Page Channel - A Web Page Channel is a way of pulling an external web page into a small window. Each Web Page Channel also offers the option to click on a link, which will open the enclosed web site in a full-sized browser.

5) Calendar Channel - A Calendar Channel may be used to schedule any kind of meeting or appointment, commonly called 'events.'

6) Mini Web Site Channel - A Mini Web Page Channel is a way for an administrator to create a page that acts like a full web page. Each Mini Web Page Channel can contain pictures, text, links, and descriptions.

7) Headline Channel - A Headline Channel is a channel that contains a list of headlines, with links to the full story. These links are generated by a keyword that is specified when the channel is created.

In closing, DisasterHelp is built on a tested platform currently being used by both the U.S. Navy and Army as internal portals. It will provide users the ability to find a variety of information and the toolset necessary to share information across the nation.

DisasterHelp will succeed when users like you contribute - adding content to community pages, creating custom channels, uploading documents to the knowledge centers, and creating chat rooms. DisasterHelp has feedback available on the left side bar of the site. Please submit your thoughts and ideas as we work to further shape DisasterHelp into a tool that is useful for you.

Thanks for your patience in covering all this material today, and now I will turn it back over to Art for a few concluding remarks.

Art Slavinski: In closing, disasterhelp.gov will continue to evolve. Future enhancements will consist of new functionality and content. Later phases will incorporate delivery of integrated, cross-agency processes & services to citizens, governments, and NGOs with emphasis on First Responder needs. We need you as community leaders with your knowledge of those needs to participate in this process, and we invite your feedback.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Art and Margie and thanks to everyone for your patience. Please note there are various help pages included on DisasterHelp with more detailed instructions on how to use the various features that Margie has shown us today.

[Audience Questions and Answers]


Lloyd Colston: Since a plurality of Net users rely on email-only accounts such as Juno and FidoNet, are there plans to provide notices to customers by email only of items of interest to them?

Sumeet Luthra: The product has the ability to send changes. In the future, we may be implementing functionality to provide better email access to all users.

Margie Dickerson: The portal also has the ability to send out targeted announcements to users based on particular user attributes. These are always done in conjunction with community administrators. They are never mass emailings, etc.


Christopher Effgen: Is the site manned 24/7? Will there be a group of people collecting and processing data during disasters?

Margie Dickerson: The site is manned 24x7, yes.


Sunnie Baldwin: Margie, will the personal page custom channels accept secure Web sites the user already has permissions for?

Margie Dickerson: Yes, it will. The web page channel allows you to place in any URL that you desire. There are no limits.


Kevin Kiser: Margie, when will an automated registration process be available in the portal to "validate" users -- giving them access to the collaboration and chat tools?

Margie Dickerson: The policy for registration has been determined. We are hoping to have the technology in place by mid-next week.

Sumeet Luthra: We are still working on the draft policy. Once approved by the legal department, we will implement automatic registration.


Francis James: I’m not sure I understand the Partners section, much of the information appears to not be disaster related. Also, is it expected that I know which agency has the information that I need (assuming I know what the acronym means)?

Brandi Miller: Content will be reorganized based upon user feedback and focus groups, along with partner agency coordination. This is just pilot information.

Kevin Kiser: Also, Francis, the philosophy behind DHelp is that we are NOT the content managers – the partners themselves will be.


Jeff Covert: Who is funding this effort and how long is it funded for? How do we know that it's not going away?

Sumeet Luthra: Disaster Management partners are funding this effort at the direction of OMB.


Jeff Covert: Can you elaborate please?

Sumeet Luthra: The effort is one of the three important e-Gov initiatives as identified by the President’s Management Council. The exact funding mechanism is still being worked out at high level. Go to http://www.egov.gov for details.


Isabel McCurdy: Is this program strictly setup for Americans, or can Canadians have the same access?

Dave Epperson: That question has come up a couple of times. The answer is for the pilot we are going to handle it on a by name request basis through our External Affairs


Karen Thompson, IAEM: Please help me understand the definition of sub-community. Will these include actual cities, towns, and/or counties as "sub-communities?" If so, who would sign up as "administrator" of these?

Margie Dickerson: Sub-communities can be laid out in whatever manner you decide. As I mentioned, there is an unlimited amount of space for sub-communities. Because of this, you could have cities/towns, and counties. It all depends on how the top level administrators decide they wish to do it. We are also in the process of drafting some content management policy that will assist administrators in figuring out the best structure to use.


Lloyd Colston: Is there a process for importing bookmarks or favorites so one can avoid entering one Web page at a time? Also, thanks for the hard work on this project.

Margie Dickerson: That is an interesting question. We have not had that request in the past, but it is a functionality that we could quickly build. That is what all users should keep in mind with the portal. It is always expanding, adding new functionality and content - I think this idea is a good one we could work to build in.

Brandi Miller: This is exactly the kind of feedback we were hoping to get – thanks!


Christopher Effgen: Will you be using instant tools to perform analysis on data and submitter reliability? Tools that process data as it is entered. They would pick out the message from a reliable source and weigh its importance.

Sumeet Luthra: The content will be submitted by verified partners, government entities and DM will not be in a position to verify any data.


Amy Sebring: Thanks to Art, Margie, Sumeet, Brandi and Dave. Thanks to all for hanging in there with us. As usual, we will have a transcript posted late this afternoon. Thanks to everyone for participating today and please help me thank our presenters.