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Disaster Assistance Program Coordination

October 24, 2012
Improving the Delivery of Disaster Assistance - Using Standards-Based Data and Flexible Technology Platforms to Increase Data Sharing across the Federal Government and Reduce the Burden on Disaster Survivors
Karole Johns, Disaster Assistance Improvement Program PMO

Executive Summary

In 2008, the Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP), an E-Government initiative led by FEMA with support from 16 U.S. Government partners, launched DisasterAssistance.gov to simplify the process for disaster survivors to identify and apply for disaster assistance. DAIP utilized existing partner technologies and implemented a services oriented architecture (SOA) that integrated the content management system and rules engine supporting Department of Labor’s Benefits.gov applications with FEMA’s Individual Assistance Center application. The FEMA SOA serves as the backbone for data sharing interfaces with three of DAIP’s federal partners and transfers application data to reduce duplicate data entry by disaster survivors. As DAIP works to integrate additional partners and further reduce the burden on disaster survivors, the Program is exploring solutions that reduce the technological and fiscal barriers to entry for partners while overcoming the challenges presented by each partner’s unique legal, security, policy and privacy requirements.


More than 800,000 individuals needed emergency assistance, such as housing, food, and clothing, after Hurricane Katrina struck the southern United States in 2005. That year, more than 2.7 million people applied for FEMA assistance. Since Hurricane Katrina, there have been more than 50 presidentially declared national disasters each year. These events have caused injury and death, destroyed homes and businesses, and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the nation. Executive Order 13411 was issued in response to the confusion and frustration people encountered when they asked for help from multiple federal programs following Hurricane Katrina. It required the government to simplify the process of identifying and applying for disaster assistance.

The executive order gave FEMA 15 months to create an information clearinghouse of all federal assistance available to disaster survivors and develop a single application process to reduce unnecessary duplication of forms and processes. Seventeen federal agencies, who sponsor over 70 different forms of assistance (FOAs) for disaster survivors, came together as partners in the Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP) to address this need. Even with the weight of the executive order behind its mission, DAIP faced the challenge of figuring out how to share data across the disparate technology systems of its 17 partners, each governed by a unique set of statutory and policy requirements.


DAIP capitalized on existing partner technologies, including the Department of Labor’s Benefits.gov content management system and rules engine to provide a prescreening questionnaire that allows disaster survivors to identify the assistance most relevant to them, and FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Center (DAC), which served as the foundation for the online application. To share data and services with other federal agencies, DAIP implemented Oracle’s Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) Suite, and employed the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) to provide a standards-based model for exchanging data. Chosen for its flexibility, SOA offers the potential for sharing data with the least technologically advanced partners in a format that works for them, while also providing those with more sophisticated systems automated data exchanges. Bidirectional SOA interfaces share data with the Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration and the Department of Labor; an interface with the Department of Education assists displaced survivors with information on federal student loans. DAIP successfully integrated these government systems and launched DisasterAssistance.gov on December 31, 2008.

Following launch, DAIP worked to identify and integrate additional application data to improve the process of finding and applying for disaster assistance. Since many of the most beneficial programs to survivors are funded federally but administered at the state level, DAIP worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a SOA interface with the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s Food For Florida initiative. As DAIP explored additional interfaces with its federal partners, and looked to expand state capabilities piloted in Florida, the realities of partner technological readiness and legal and privacy policy restrictions across the government forced the Program to reassess its approach to custom SOA data exchanges. This, combined with lessons learned from the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the need to quickly stand up a new sub-site, led DAIP to explore even more flexible technologies with still lower barriers to entry for its partners.

Next Steps

To address these challenges, DAIP is developing a federated application using an XML forms engine. The federated application will let partners use DisasterAssistance.gov as the central access point for survivors to access FOAs while each partner agency receives, stores, owns and processes all its unique applicant data and maintains control of its own business rules, adjudication processes and funding decisions. This approach will facilitate data sharing among partners through more efficient data gathering and processing, quality monitoring and control and adherence to policies governing data collection. For survivors, this will further reduce duplicate data entry and continue to improve access to assistance following a disaster.

DAIP is currently working with its partners to develop requirements for the forms engine framework and plans to have this capability implemented in early FY 2014.


  • In FY 2012, DisasterAssistance.gov visitors viewed partner disaster assistance information over 1.4 million times and submitted more than 151,000 applications for assistance.
  • During FY 2012, these applications resulted in over 550,000 data transactions between FEMA and its interfacing partners.
  • The self-service application capabilities available to disaster survivors through DisasterAssistance.gov took applicants an average of 17 minutes to complete during the second half of FY 2012, while the call center application process has averaged 19 minutes during that time.

Lessons Learned

  • Legal, policy, security and privacy requirements that govern the collection and sharing of applicant data limit the options available to E-Government and other open data initiatives, and require innovative, flexible approaches and technical solutions.
  • Federal and state agencies vary drastically in terms of their technological readiness and ability to work with current and emerging technologies, requiring data sharing solutions capable of providing both electronic and non-electronic delivery of data to partners.
  • A Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) provides standards, reusability and reduced cost compared to other approaches for data sharing, but there are cost, technical capability and development capacity requirements on both partner agencies that present additional challenges.


  • References to the product and/or service names of the hardware and/or software products used in this case study do not constitute an endorsement of such hardware and/or software products.