Digital Earth maps county's decision

NASA helped officials of Patrick County, Va., choose between wireless phones and radios for its school bus communication system

NASA's Digital Earth office

When NASA officials visited Patrick County, Va., last year to explain the

space agency's benefits to the state, residents had more down-to-earth concerns

for them.

"The community said, "If you want to help us, help us with the real-world

problems we face every day in Patrick County,'" said Michael Ruiz, special

assistant to the director of NASA's Earth and Space Science Program Office

at Langley Research Center in Virginia.

Specifically, residents wanted to know if NASA could help them weigh

the benefits of equipping county school buses with wireless phones vs. handheld

radios, Ruiz said.

NASA had two words for the residents: Digital Earth.

Digital Earth is a project, headed

at the federal level by NASA, to convert the massive amounts of geospatial

data collected by government agencies, academia and the private sector into

a Web-based, 3-D representation of the world.

As part of the plan, supporters are using the technology to show local

governments, communities and businesses how the Digital Earth project can

benefit them.

To help Patrick County, NASA drew on satellite imagery and data from

the U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency and the

Federal Communications Commission, Ruiz said.

The result was a virtual, 3-D map of the region that users could view

on a computer monitor or project onto a wall or screen.

Judy Lacks, the county school superintendent, said the results were

impressive.

Beginning with an aerial view of the region from thousands of feet away,

the image zoomed down and wound through the county's hills and roads, as

in a video game.

There were shades of green, yellow and, most importantly, brown. The

brown areas were "dead zones," where wireless phones would not work. The

virtual map revealed dead zones snaking throughout the region, including

along a road on which one school is located, Lacks said.

So the school opted for a radio system instead of using wireless phones.

Ruiz said the information supplied to Patrick County also might help

residents in the future, when regional wireless service providers consider

construction of new towers.

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