Keeping maps up-to-date

When hurricanes ravaged Florida this summer, first responders and other emergency personnel relied on the latest maps of disaster areas to find rescue targets. The events underscored the need for the most accurate geospatial data possible.

Now, Pennsylvania State University researchers are working on faster, more accurately updated maps to speed up rescue in similar situations. Funded by the National Science Foundation's Digital Government Research program, Penn State scientists have built a wireless, voice-driven prototype of a "distributed war room" map system. The GeoCollaborative Crisis Management System (GCCM) puts real-time situation maps simultaneously into the hands of incident commanders and field responders who may be miles apart.

"It's a project more than a system," said Dr. Alan M. MacEachren, director of the GeoVISTA Center at Penn State. "It's a research project to develop a set of linked systems. One of the impediments of GIS is that it remains a hard to learn technology. It's a computer system for storing, organizing, accessing and applying geographic information."

This application is easy for first responders to use, he said.

Using the project, a commander could speak the words "show me shelters within six miles of Mountain Vista Fire Station," point in its general direction on his command map -- and the station's address would appear on workstations in remote offices and tablet PCs out in the field. This allows wireless updating of GIS (geographic information system) data so that field responders in far-flung locations can plan rescues and response together in real time.

"It's getting people to focus on collaboration in a way that technology doesn't get in the way -- the power of that is you don't have people thinking about how to get the technology to work but instead thinking about what the response needs to be," said Eric Conrad, a private consultant to the project and a former emergency administrator for Pennsylvania. "The quicker you can stop an event or respond to its aftermath, the less impact it has; GIS lets us do that."

The GeoCollaborative Crisis Management System is a joint project of Penn State University's GeoVISTA Center and public agencies including NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

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