How a Cross-Functional Team Re-engineered an Automated Debris Management System (ADMS) to Help Galveston Texas Recover From the Worst Hurricane in a Century, Leveraging the Scrum Development Methodology
They say the true test of character is how you perform under pressure. The same can be said of application development—in this case, how a development team from two firms performed under pressure developing a BPM-based application that had to function flawlessly in the aftermath of an unfolding disaster.
Scenes of Devastation
In September 2008, Hurricane Ike made its final landfall over Galveston, Texas, cutting a swath of destruction as a Category 2 hurricane with a Category 5 equivalent storm surge and hurricane force winds extending 120 miles from the center of the storm. All told, Ike was the third costliest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States, causing $15 billion in damages, mostly in the state of Texas.
In the aftermath of the devastation caused by Ike, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)—along with various agencies within the state, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, Galveston County, and the City of Galveston—was faced with restoring a state of normalcy to the region by facilitating the quick and efficient disposal of debris. All told, there were seven projects that required attention and, in addition to debris removal from roads and state parks—which included damaged structures, vehicles, boats, and hazardous materials—eco-sensitive areas needed to be contained and monitored for environmental impact.
The TxDOT and the affiliate agencies needed to re-engineer their automated debris management system that had been previously implemented. The project would entail customizing and enhancing the system to systematically handle all aspects of the operation, and make adjustments as requirements and circumstances on the ground changed.
Defining Project Challenges
Time is typically one of the biggest challenges when working on an Emergency Management Services (EMS) application. Consultants typically don't get notified of some core requirements until after a disaster has hit and they acquire a contract. This is entirely understandable, as disasters of the magnitude of Ike pose unpredicted challenges—events on the ground are fluid, and require that developers are deployed on site to make on-the-fly modifications to the debris management system.
The team for this project was made up of consultants and technicians based in Miami, and a group based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with expertise in developing sophisticated emergency management systems.
The first challenge was integrating the teams without having to worry about language barriers and the geographical distance, as seamless, real-time communication is critical—particularly for a time-sensitive project such as this one. Concerns about language barriers were quickly dispelled; moreover, the team from Argentina had a communications infrastructure ready to go, which included video conferencing, VoIP, and efficient collaboration tools with version control and daily off-site backup. Both teams periodically met in Miami and deployed technicians onsite during the initial phases of software development.
Where Scrum Meets BPM
The development process adhered to the Scrum development methodology, an iterative, incremental framework for project management and agile software development. And while agile methodology is not new to many developers in the software industry, what makes Scrum unique is its introduction of “empirical process control.” In other words, Scrum uses the real-world progress of a project—not a best guess or uninformed forecast—to plan and schedule releases. In Scrum, projects are divided into succinct work cadences, known as sprints, which are typically one week, two weeks, or three weeks in duration. At the end of each sprint, stakeholders and team members meet to assess the progress of a project and plan its next steps. This allows a project’s direction to be adjusted or reoriented based on completed work, not speculation or predictions. Moreover, the foundation of Scrum methodology is set on establishing roles, responsibilities, and meetings that never change. In short, Scrum’s capacity for adaption and flexibility combined with the stability of its practices provide teams with a sound framework for instances when development can get chaotic.
The Scrum methodology is particularly suited for scenarios such as this where cross-functional teams are charged with developing solutions that are adaptable to the dynamics of emergency situations.
Hitting a Moving Target
The initial scope of this particular project was somewhat vague. The goal was to build and customize an Automated Debris Management System (ADMS) to facilitate the timely and efficient cleanup of the devastation caused by Ike. There were requirements to comply with, as well as some uncertainties regarding the context the app would have to be run in. The Scrum methodology enabled the integrated team to build incremental prototypes of each component of the system. Their approach was hands-on and test-driven, as some of the technologies they had to integrate were almost experimental—such as military mobile devices and encrypted cards to authenticate users.
The project's goal was to automate a very significant operation, and tailor an ADMS that had two core elements: a Right-of-Way (ROW) Site Debris Management module (an electronic load ticket application of the ADMS that records ROW transactional data for mission managers, haulers, and applicants) and a Disposal Site Debris Management module (to manage transactions between origination and disposal).
The project was completed in phases and continued over the course of two years. The team made a handful of trips to Texas during deployment to provide training, and integrate and fine tune some specific tools. Indeed, the project continues to evolve as they are working on a module to comply with new requirements that have arisen.
The ADMS ultimately put in place provided the TxDOT with a more efficient, accurate, and auditable process for debris management. It does everything from ensuring debris eligibility and completion of load tickets for reimbursement; providing tools for immediate processing, estimating, viewing, and analysis of data; facilitating real-time, operational decision-making, and reducing staffing requirements and program costs.
The successful partnership showed how the application of Scrum methodology enabled two cross-functional teams separated by 4,000 miles to streamline development and help bring a large-scale, time-sensitive business process management project to completion—on time and on budget. Generally, modeling and re-engineering business processes is a multi-step, long-term process, fraught with trial and error. Hurricane Ike and the ensuing devastation put the development team under tremendous pressure, as they were responsible for helping get the entire region back on its feet while the clock was continually ticking. The team's ability to overcome roadblocks and an assortment of unexpected issues and deliver an ADMS that enabled the area’s residents to get back to work and resume their lives was a very rewarding achievement for all involved and testament to the efficacy of a BPM process infused with Scrum methodology.