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Friday, May 14, 2021

Professor, students aid schools in Laos with technology

A series of apps are being created to help detect at-risk schools in Laos that have a high chance of crumbling due to disasters.

Huxley College of the Environment professor Rebekah Paci-Green, who teaches Western’s disaster risk reduction minor, and two of her students, senior Heidi Gottschall and junior Micah Van Zant are creating part of the apps.

The creation of the app is an international job, Paci-Green said. Once she and her team are finished with their portion of the app, developers in Turkey will finish setting up the actual app itself.

The app has been adopted by UNESCO, which works to join nations through international projects.

“I was interested in disasters and helping communities avoid them,” Paci-Green said. “You can’t actually prevent the event but you certainly don’t have to have the impacts.”

Gottschall and Van Zant have been working with Paci-Green for about three weeks Gottschall said. They are both a part of the disaster risk reduction minor.

Although homes and other buildings are often built just as poorly as the schools, Paci-Green said there is a different level of responsibility for schools to keep children safe.

“Public schools are public institutions and that is the state saying to a child, ‘we require that you come here, we require you to spend your waking hours in this building,’” Paci-Green said. “These kids don’t have a choice in what the building looks like.”

The app focuses on getting the community and the school officials to identify the risks, Paci-Green said. The team of three is working on the second of three parts of the app.

The first step is the first in the series of apps. It focuses on students and parents, Paci-Green said. It is a really basic app that is meant to get parents asking the right questions like, “Is the school sturdy enough to stand up during an earthquake?“

The second is a self-assessment app, which the team is working on now. It is focused on informing the school administration what it can do to protect their school. This app allows a principal, a committee or other school administration to go out and assess their own schools to see what changes need to be made to make sure the building will stand up against various disasters, Paci-Green said.

The final app is the most technical and complex and is not being created at Western, Paci-Green said. It is being created by engineers at the University of Udine in Italy.

The third app is used after parents and school administration have asked their questions and done self-assessments of the schools. The schools with the highest risks and most problems will be flagged, which will then alert engineers to what schools need the most help, she said.

Paci-Green said nobody on the team has the complete picture and everyone plays a different role. There are people in Laos who understand what the schools look like, while people in Turkey and Italy understand the engineering and web development, she said.

Part of Gottschall’s job is to help bridge the language barrier when translating questions and concerns between the US and Laos, she said.

Gottschall also works on making the icons that will be used in the app.

“It’s a visual aspect, like a universal symbol so people can understand,” Gottschall said.

Van Zant is in charge of organizing photos of school building with specific codes that go to the app developers in Turkey.

Van Zant said she is excited to be working with others in the process.

Western’s portion of the creation of the app is expected to be finished in December, Paci-Green said.

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