Emergence Alumna Making a Difference: Sharing Information in the Big Easy
“Special events are ingrained into the fabric of New Orleans; finding a way to share information for planning purposes and in real-time is essential to minimizing confusion, frustration, and congestion in a city reliant upon such events for its livelihood.”
Celebrating Mardi Gras in Louisiana and specifically in the city of New Orleans is a way of life; with over 60 parades annually, it is also a significant contributor to city congestion, traffic and crowd control challenges, and concerns for those charged with public safety. These concerns drove Center of Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) Emergence 1901 graduate Laura Mellem, serving as the Public Engagement Manager for the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (NOHSEP), to search for a solution to improve public awareness. As a relative newcomer to the field of homeland security, Mellem drew upon her experience in community outreach and engagement to address a pressing need within the city regarding the impact of special events on the local and visiting public.
Encouraged by the NOHSEP Director, Mr. Collin Arnold, Mellem entered Emergence cohort 1901 with a focused project and outcome in mind. “I was new to the homeland security and emergency preparedness environment, but I realized the benefit to the public and first responders if we could develop a tool for sharing information on the various events in the city,” Mellem stated. Beyond the basic thought of creating a website to collect and display special events such as parades and festivals, her conceptual framework focused on the inclusion of other significant challenges to the normal flow of people within the city such as detours for construction and the all too common problem associated with flooding. Mellem commented, “In my mind, my project seemed well thought out and ready for production; however, the insightful, diverse, and ‘out of the box’ feedback provided by my faculty and peers at Emergence truly elevated the project.” Continuing, Mellem said, “My cohort got me thinking about basic communication within the various city departments and how I could best collect and synthesize all of the possible inputs into the system…the benefits of which improved communication between departments external to this project.” Beyond the conceptual design, Emergence additionally provided Mellem with tools for turning her idea into a reality.
Between the first and second in-residence session of Emergence, Mellem applied the course instruction to move into the next phase of development. Reflecting upon her experience she noted, “Emergence doesn’t just get you thinking about a change initiative to solve a problem, it provides the basic skills of organizational change, an understanding of organizational structures, tools for pitching projects to leadership, managing those projects, and maybe most importantly, skills for dealing with the unknown challenges with implementation.” Capitalizing on the exceptional talents of the New Orleans Department of Information Technology and Innovation, and working with the New Orleans Police Department, Mellem delivered a beta-version of the new application entitled “RouteWise” (https://routewise.nola.gov) prior to the major Mardi Gras events leading up to Fat Tuesday in March 2019. “We began coding prior to the first in-residence session and had the basic structure of the website ready…we really fine-tuned the layout and interface after the first Emergence session…the benefit of that first [Emergence] session was immeasurable,” Mellem stated. Appreciation and praise from the public and New Orleans city government quickly followed.
Less than two weeks after the culmination of Mardi Gras festivities, Mellem and the team of developers received one of the inaugural Hero Awards from New Orleans’ Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
The recognition provided another avenue for creating greater community awareness for the RouteWise website which received over 40,000 hits in the first weeks of operation. In a city thriving on tourism, parades, and major events within a condensed downtown environment, the expansion of RouteWise is inevitable. “We have incorporated text alerts for those signing up for the service and have teamed up to share our data with Waze.com to provide more real-time information to the public beyond the RouteWise website,” Mellem stated. She continued, “The expansion of the system to assist in emergency management and planning is essential and we are already looking into how best to incorporate it during this hurricane season and how to address low income and special needs residents.”
Emergence provided an opportunity for Mellem to expand her skillset and background in community relations to improve homeland security preparedness in New Orleans. She commented, “Without a doubt, the welcoming environment and openness of faculty and participants is something very unique to Emergence…although I may have been concerned with my limited experience in the field before attending, the overall experience was extremely collaborative and conducive with learning.”