08/17/2012 07:08 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

Failing to Plan Is Planning to Fail

It's not enough to just sit back and expect the fire department will protect you; nature is simply too overwhelming. Specialists we've worked with remind us that many areas are naturally expected to burn, though construction often continues despite these risks. Nationwide, severe drought conditions have greatly elevated the risk of wildfire, while the risk level in Texas, as usual, remains relatively high. Back in February when I was living in Austin for the month as part of the Code for America fellowship program, I was working with the City staff searching for ways better serve Austinites. During a conversation with the Austin Fire Department they told us about how custom fire assessment and education were in high demand, especially in the wake of last year's devastation across Central Texas, such as the Bastrop County fire. Intrigued, we interviewed homeowners and more homeowners. It became clear that we could help make sense of the often-confusing array of available checklists and public resources.

Developers in and outside of government are beginning to contribute to prevention and recovery efforts, myself included. For example, developers helped recovery efforts after the Waldo Canyon Fires in Colorado by combining posts from Twitter and Instagram, the Texas Forest Service has released a detailed product called the TxWRAP, and companies (some started by firefighters) are making it easier for first responders to see various data sources in one place. After a few months of development, Code for America Austin released, a web app to help homeowners manage their risk of wildfire by providing risk information from public data, prevention activities, and communication with experts.

While in Austin for the official launch of the application, we co-hosted a demo for a couple dozen homeowners in Austin. Our night began with a presentation from the Austin Fire Department's Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Specialist Lt. Josh Portie before moving inside to demo and discuss

During the evening is quickly came to light that although one neighborhood had taken steps to become a "Firewise community," the National Fire Protection Association's recognition of steps taken by communities (collaborating with prevention experts) to adapt their neighborhoods to mitigate fire risk, abutting areas had never even heard of the program. In short, the event served as community townhall of sorts. A forum for exchanging information from one neighbor to another.

Armed with the knowledge that "the difficult and immediate decisions that firefighters have to make in an emergency often lead them to saving homes that seem prepared, and not wasting valuable time on those that aren't" (succinct summary of Lt. Portie's presentation by my teammate Emily Wright Moore). And furnished with the tools to transform knowledge into action the residents left a bit more prepared. That night made the Austin community a bit safer, and a bit stronger.

So why does this really matter (other than safety, of course)

We're helping citizens help themselves and providing a direct connection to government when the circumstances require. We're not just concerned with how government functions, we want to change how communities interact, making society, not just government, better. For the fire department, provides citizens an entry point to the range of available materials and goes beyond a one-way push of information. In some ways, it's an improved interface to public service announcements. Getting people outside and active in shaping their community is a flavor of tech-enabled civic engagement that goes beyond merely giving a thumbs up or submitting ideas (though there's plenty of room for that, too). As author Eric Liu noted at the Code for America Salon a few weeks ago, "Society becomes how you behave."

As hundreds of users continue to mark prevention activities as "completed" on, encourage their neighbors to sign up, and share the significance of their efforts, we hope our open source project becomes an example or even a template for other communities managing their respective disaster prevention efforts and as a tool to engage with their residents.