Monday, May 9, 2016

Fort McMurray Wildfire Evacuees Housing - using Google Apps.

As one of the many universities in Edmonton, MacEwan University was tasked with using available space in our student residence to house displaced families from Fort McMurray (at one point it was estimated that 60,000 would be making their way to/through Edmonton). To help organize some of our efforts, we developed 3 forms and a spreadsheet. Although we are not the largest institution, our staff took in over 1000 people in a single night. The staff was more concerned with getting families who had been on the road for over 48 hours into rooms as fast as possible, so the process of collecting information was not as exact as normal. 

Census Forms

The next day it was important to get an accurate number of the people and age groups in the building. Many people who initially registered with us had either invited others in or had given up our rooms. Rooms intended for a maximum of 6 people were housing 8 or 10. The plan was to go door to door to collect numbers and names of people. Understanding the evacuees were still tired and stressed, we decided to create 2 Google Forms to keep our interactions at a minimum.

The Short Census form would allow us to get an idea of the number of adults and kids. This information could be passed on to the different support services (e.g., food and clothing). The Long Census form gave us more detailed information about names and contact information which could be entered into a residence management system. Because typing on an iPad is rarely fast, and spelling of names/emails would be a challenge, we decided to let the evacuees fill this out themselves (most people had a smart phone). After collecting the Short Census information, volunteers gave evacuees a piece of paper with a link to the Long Census along with Red Cross information. 

Short Census Data

  • Room number (text field)
  • Name on file confirmed (Yes/No)
  • Name if not person on file (text field)
  • Number of Adults (1 - 10 Multiple choice with Other)
  • Number of kids 11 years and older (1 - 10 Multiple choice with Other)
  • Number of kids 10 years and under (1 - 10 Multiple choice with Other)
  • Registred at Red Cross (Yes/No) 

Long Census Data

  • Room Number (text field)
  • Names of all guests (paragraph)
  • Email address (text field with validation)
  • Cell phone (text field with validation)

Volunteer Form

I saw a lot of emails messages asking for volunteers before I was invited in on the project. Once we got the Google Form up and running, it was a lot easier to collect the information. As people indicated the shifts they would be available, the coordinator review and assign them to shifts in the spreadsheet, and use formMule to send our confirmation messages. Restaurant Lists

Edmonton has been known as the City of Champions for a number of years and one of the big reasons is the support that comes out during times of crises. Restaurants throughout the city are providing free meals for displaced families. To assist us in keeping our board up to date, we created a spreadsheet of the local (i.e. walking distance) restaurants. This provides us with a single list that we can use everyday to call and confirm the offers are still available and ensure we only call them once (multiple people were using the list). 

Take Aways/Tips

In web design there’s a saying: “Don’t make them think.” Although we could create all sorts of beautifully designed forms and spreadsheets, it’s important to remember that “Done is better than perfect or pretty” and everyone is already under enough stress.. So here are a few things you should consider: 

  • With Google Forms, use Multiple Choice fields instead of Lists. Yes, all the choices are displayed on the page and take up a lot of room, but when filling out on a mobile device the user just has to move down the page (i.e., push up) to see the choices. 
  • Use a larger font. Not pretty, but easier to read on the screen and easier to choose items from lists
  • Don’t expect add-ons for Google Apps to always work properly. Your users should be prepared to process things manually should something go wrong. This is extremely important with non-technical users.
  • Don’t force Google Apps solutions on people. Yes, organizing spreadsheets is much easier than using paper and pen for managing lists, but these people are under enough pressure. If it’s working and getting the job done, let it go. You can always circle back to it during the debriefing sessions. 

Last Note

Many of these people have not only lost their homes, but potentially their source of employment. If you’d like to help out, please donate to the Red Cross by visiting

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