In 2022, a team of researchers from UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education and College of Engineering and Computer Science set out to solve an elusive question plaguing local officials: How do you provide critical services to residents where and when they need it after a disaster?

Neighborhoods throughout Orlando — many typically underserved by existing infrastructure — could easily find themselves without power, internet and mobility after significant weather events, exacerbating the challenges historically socioeconomically vulnerable populations already face. Effective local response requires a mobile, self-sustaining solution to provide residents with services ranging from device charging and air-conditioned space to laundry to food distribution and even ice for food preservation. Even more, could such a solution also provide educational resources for residents to prepare for future emergencies more effectively?

Kelly Stevens, assistant professor of public administration and the project’s principal investigator, has been working with fellow UCF researchers to bring this vision to life. Together with the City of Orlando and other community leaders, the team has spent the past year conceptualizing what an effective Resilience, Education, and Advocacy Center for Hazard Preparedness (REACH) hub would look like.

Now, they’re ready to put their ideas into action.

The team recently received approval and funding for the project’s second phase from the National Science Foundation’s CIVIC program, which involved presenting the findings from the project’s first phase and successfully demonstrating its feasibility.

Stevens serves on the REACH project team with Yue “Gurt” Ge, public administration associate professor, L. Trenton S. Marsh, urban education assistant professor, Liqiang Wang, computer science professor, and Zhihua Qu, electrical and computer engineering professor, who serve as co-principal investigators. Senior personnel on the project include Maritza Concha, nonprofit management lecturer; Christopher Emrich, emergency management professor; and Kristopher Davis, associate professor of materials science and engineering.

“We are extremely happy with the success of Phase I,” Stevens says. “We had over 300 responses from residents to the community survey we built with our partners, which informed our design process in a way that allowed us to really co-design these hubs with and for the community.”

A proposed rendering of a REACH hub deployed and in use by the community is shown.
A proposed rendering of a REACH hub deployed and in use by the community is shown.

Stevens says feedback from the community was critical because residents’ responses provided insight into potential resources and amenities for the hub beyond the original concept — from an onboard ice maker to finding a more efficient way to distribute water than simply having water bottles onboard.

The architectural design produced by the team is critical to Phase II of the project, the principal goal of which is to build and test a prototype REACH hub in the communities where it will ultimately be used.

The hub is designed as a trailer chassis-based mobile unit that can be easily deployed in neighborhoods without power or service access. The unit will contain a slew of appliances and usable services for residents to charge their devices, cool off, access the internet and more. The key to the hub is its self-sustaining power, principally supplied through solar panels and supplemented by a conventional generator when under heavy load.

“Right now, we’re working to select vendors that will construct the hub and everything on it,” Stevens says. “We’re looking for someone who can build the hub itself, design the electrical and solar components, install the appliances, and ultimately provide us with a fully realized and working hub.”

Stevens also notes the hub itself is only half the battle. Critical to the project’s value in the community is its educational component, designed to provide affected residents with necessary information about disaster preparedness and recovery before and after a disaster.

“Our ‘blue skies’ curriculum will consist of community-driven, interactive and immersive STEM education learning stations,” says Marsh, who serves as the project’s education lead. “We want to build the programming around what residents recognize; the landmarks they view as signs of strength and resiliency, as well as areas they feel are more vulnerable or susceptible to inclement weather.”

The hubs will also host just-in-time preparedness content for residents to assist with preparation and decision-making ahead of a potential emergency. Evacuation plans and food preparation, Marsh says, are plans the team hopes to focus content on.

Ideally, the team hopes to leverage emerging augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) technologies in developing educational programming to provide residents with in-depth, immersive experiences. The UCF-led HazardAware project also collects data that can provide individual address-based natural hazard and home resilience information tailored to residents’ specific homes.

“We hope that we’ll be able to further leverage our resources at UCF to accomplish these goals with virtual and augmented reality programming, specifically through a potential partnership with the university’s Institute for Simulation and Training,” Marsh says.

Once the prototype hub has been built and the educational programming completed, the team will run extensive tests and experiments on the hub’s appliances and power systems to ensure its viability in real-world scenarios. After that, testing will move into the community — where Stevens says the team will really get a sense of how the hub will work.

“We’re going to implement four test deployments in local neighborhoods — three during ‘blue skies’ and one after an actual emergency,” Stevens says. “We want to see how people actually interact with the hub — what they’re interested in, what parts are functional and even what parts aren’t super functional.”

The final step, once testing is completed, is to hand off ownership of the hub to the city of Orlando. The city will be responsible for the deployment, maintenance and future development of the project. Michael Hess, director of the City of Orlando’s Future Ready program, and Ian Lahiff, an energy project manager with the city, serve as senior personnel on the project.

“The city has been our core partner from Day One, so we know they’re in this for the long haul,” Stevens says. “Our team is confident they will be good stewards of the project and its impact on the community.”

“A key part of developing our Future-Ready City Master Plan was engaging our residents to continue to improve the city’s resilience to hazards, changing conditions, and socioeconomic stresses to create a more equitable city with innovation and inclusivity top of mind,” says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “Our collaboration with UCF on the REACH mobile resilience hub helps us build upon the city’s ongoing resiliency efforts at our neighborhood centers, including our Tables of Connection, to help educate, support and provide critical services and resources to our residents with the greatest need.”

The ultimate goal, Stevens says, is to produce an effective and efficient means of increasing equitable resilience in the community.

“When we can show our community that UCF is leveraging its expertise and resources to produce technology — in a quick timeframe and at a very local scale — that can actually be used in the community, that’s the real impact,” she says.

Researcher Credentials

Stevens received her doctorate in public administration from Syracuse University and joined UCF’s School of Public Administration, part of UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education, in 2017. She is a member of UCF’s Resilient, Intelligent, and Sustainable Energy Systems (RISES) Cluster and FSEC Energy Research Center

Ge joined UCF in 2018 and serves as co-lead of the Urban Resilience Initiative based at UCF Downtown. He has also served on the RISES faculty research cluster since 2021. He holds a doctorate in urban and regional science from Texas A&M University.

Marsh earned his doctorate in teaching and learning with a concentration in urban education from New York University and joined UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education in 2019 after a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor.

Qu arrived at UCF in 1990 after earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Currently the Thomas J. Riordan and Herbert C. Towle Chair of UCF’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, he is also the founding director of both RISES — a university research center on energy systems — and the multi-institutional Foundations for Engineering Education for Distributed Energy Resources Center (FEEDER).

Wang earned his doctorate in computer science from Stony Brook University in 2006 and joined the UCF Department of Computer Science in 2015.