When Hurricane Irma terrorized much of the Atlantic last month, many lost everything. Several islands were almost completely knocked out, and many are still without power and technical infrastructure.
Thankfully for the University of South Florida, “Hurricane Irma passed through the Tampa Bay region in a weakened state and did not inflict as much damage as [university leaders] had initially anticipated, according to a fact sheet posted to the institution’s website in the days following the storm.
Connecting with students, faculty and staff in the days immediately following the hurricane to provide real-time updates and establish open lines of communication between constituents became a top priority.
“A lot of our students and parents were calling about housing, saying 'are the dorms going to be open?'” said Sidney Fernandes, Vice President IT and CIO for the USF System.
“We needed to create some solutions very, very quickly to aid in our hurricane response efforts,” Fernandes said, adding staff on the ground were focused on ways to “capture student information and give students information about what to do when they called into our call system.”
“We actually figured that we needed to do that the evening after the hurricane — Monday around 3:00 or 4:00,” he said. Using a low-code technology, Fernandes and his team were able to get some apps up and running to help streamline the process. “By 8:00 the next morning, we had a solution for our folks to be able to proactively collect information and run analytics about what students were calling about, how they should be directed.”
“We already had building blocks in place, from authentication to who students were, who faculty were, so we were able to pull those building blocks together very very quickly to build something that worked well,” he said, emphasizing the importance of having a critical pool of data from systems which to pull before an emergency hits.
“We have a student record, faculty record, staff records. If you think about a record, a record is nothing more than a file folder of stuff. There are actions that these particular files take. In order for us to build an application or a solution, which is a combination of records and actions being taken on those records, we bring those records together to put together something like a travel application.”
If they’d had to start from scratch, said Fernandes, it would have been incredibly difficult to service the students and faculty members efficiently. But having integration between systems on the front end, ensuring single sign-on and having the infrastructure in place on the front end helped ensure “we didn’t have to worry about — ‘hey is this secure enough?’ … We were able to build groups based on what we’d already built.”
“If we had to build something from scratch, we would have first built an integration into our various systems to figure out who those people were, for single sign on, to pull up the list of those answering the phone — we didn’t have to build all of that because we had all of those records in place,” he said.
“I was able to give the provost, on his phone, kind of the archival map and he was able to see who was calling and what they were calling for. We didn’t have to code a new mobile application — it was already there,” Fernandes continued. “He was able to make decisions. He was kind of looking at the information he was getting to see who’s calling — are they faculty, are they students, what are they calling about? … Instead of [making decisions based on] feelings, he was able to get real-time information about what students were calling about so he could give real-time information and bring the student voice in the conversation.”
But more important than the technology itself were the people on the ground left to execute, Fernandes said.
“Tech is one thing,” he said. “The other is the mindset. Having a team that has an agile mindset, is used to being agile, is used to developing in an agile environment is at least 50% of the battle.”
“Understanding the concept of a minimally viable product, the concept of we need to show people what we’re going to do before we tell them what we’re going to do is critical,” he continued, adding that anything else “can be counterproductive.”
“The key to all of this is: You build legos that are going to fit together. If you have a bunch of legos that don’t fit together, it’s not going to help you.”