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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Toa Baja wins national award for community-based flooding data collection strategy

Toa Baja won the “Build a Better Mousetrap” competition with a simple but effective strategy that employed already owned resources and involved the community in gathering data for a better response to floods in the town.

By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar

Special to The Star

The municipality of Toa Baja won first place in the “Build a Better Mousetrap” (BABM) competition against 19 U.S. counties and states and among 67 projects in an event organized by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the United States Department of Transportation.

“Each year, FHWA and Local Technical Assistance Program Centers recognize government agencies that build a better mousetrap to creatively solve problems and improve transportation in their communities,” says the FHWA’s website.

Five Puerto Rican municipalities (Añasco, Mayagüez, Hormigueros, Santa Isabel and Toa Baja) competed and devised unique solutions to common transportation problems. Toa Baja won with a simple but effective strategy that employed already owned resources and involved the community in gathering data for a better response to floods in the town.

The municipality’s planning committee had the answer: using Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) software is commonplace in the department, but an underutilized tool within the system sparked the challenge. The program director, Anilda Fernández Vega, and the geographical information systems officer, Isabel Olivieri Ortiz, tweaked the program until it allowed external input. Then they used Facebook to announce it and have the community fill in the blanks whenever a weather system disrupted the town.

“In February, heavy rains inundated certain areas of our town,” recounted Olivieri Ortiz. “Like many other municipalities, we have to contend with low personnel and resources, and areas were being reported as flooded but whenever there was an onsite inspection, it wasn’t so.”

“We use the ESRI tool daily and, through a simple change in the interface, we allowed people to geotag their area,” she said. “We added questions and certain fields to be filled out and announced it through Facebook. The townspeople took to it immediately, which was very effective,” she said.

ESRI is used around the United States, and officials in other states and counties are looking into how to implement Toa Baja’s solution, which won the Smart Transformation Award.

Toa Baja Mayor Benjamín “Betito” Márquez García said he is pleased with the award and the recognition it brings to the town.

“This first place [...] is a win for all of Puerto Rico and opens the door to keep working together as a town and country,” the mayor said in a written statement.

The head of the Transportation Technology Transfer Center on the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico, Dr. Benjamín Colucci, received the award last month at a national convention in Seattle, Washington.

“Flooding of our roads and extreme events affect the safety and quality of life of our people,” he said. “This innovative application is an example of what the municipalities can do and can be transferred to other towns to quantify flood damage efficiently, boosting the process of gathering data and obtaining federal funds to repair our infrastructure cost-effectively.”

The award celebration took place at Rafael “Pipo” Negrón Community Center in the northcoast town’s Ingenio neighborhood and was attended by federal, state and municipal government officials.

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