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November 2, 2007

SDSU Team Works Around the Clock to Gather Fire Data

by Lauren Coartney, SDSU

Eric Frost and his colleagues at the SDSU Immersive Visualization Center have been working nearly around the clock to collect images of the San Diego region since the first reports of fire near Santa Ysabel started trickling in Sunday afternoon.

“We have links to all of these feeds, like NASA, Google Maps and Predator video,” said Frost, co-director of the center, which is sometimes referred to as the Viz Lab. “We’re constantly looking for more sources of precise information and different ways to visualize it so we can show the location of the fires as close to real-time as possible.”

Crisis Response

Under normal circumstances, Frost and his team collect, process, and analyze images from all around the world for purposes as varied as finding sources of oil and revealing the sketches hidden beneath Leonardo da Vinci paintings.

The Viz Lab team also regularly performs imaging of areas hit by natural disasters; this time, it just happened to be in their own backyard.

“When we heard the fire reports, we self-deployed,” Frost said.

He and his team have been generating data that fills in gaps between information sources. They quickly feed the data to local emergency responders to help them determine where services are most urgently needed.

Technological Defenses

Since the 2003 firestorm, which killed 15 people and destroyed about 3,200 structures, San Diego County has enhanced its ability to pinpoint danger areas and evacuate residents quickly. Some of those advances can be attributed to research performed in the visualization center under non-emergency circumstances as part of SDSU’s charter with the San Diego Disaster Council.

“There’s a technology being used today that allows video taken by helicopters to be downloaded to public safety internet, providing information about where the fires are and what the helicopters are seeing as they’re fighting them,” said Bob Welty, director of homeland security projects for the SDSU Research Foundation and co-director of the SDSU Immersive Visualization Center. “That comes from a lot of the work we’ve done here in the lab testing new things out.”

The variety of visual information available on the wildfires is the result of established relationships with the military, regional and national homeland security agencies and other entities that regularly rely on Frost and his team for imaging work.

“People are willing to work with us because there is a day-to-day trust; when bad things happen like this, people are willing to work with you because they trust you,” Frost said.

Critical Partnerships

Among the people that trust Frost and his team are the folks at Google. Members of their disaster imagery team have taken up temporary residence in the lab since the start of the fires.

Through its NASA partnership, Google has provided the lab with video from an unmanned aerial drone to survey the fire situation from the air. In collaboration with lab personnel, the team is retrieving and processing the data to create before-and-after maps that will help authorities with rescue and clean-up efforts efforts.

“These folks [at the visualization center] are known worldwide for their expertise with this type of material and they do a great job of promoting how we can display information in useful ways, particularly in a disaster environment,” said Josh Mendelsohn, Google program manager. “There’s no other center you want to go to for this stuff.”

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Source: SDSUniverse — http://www.sdsuniverse.info

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