San Diego’s Wildfire Experience Provides an Edge in Disaster-Tracking Tech

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how ember “showers” from the firestorm were igniting new fires far ahead of the main wall of flames—and well behind the firefighters working on the fire line to halt the blaze.

Since then, the VizLab has worked to help emergency response teams in other natural disasters, including the catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12 and the Gulf oil spill that followed the April 20 explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig. In the process, Frost says the VizLab became part of a group of hundreds to thousands of people called the Crisis Commons, which operates as an open-source effort to use the tools of information technology to help authorities respond to the Jan. 12 quake in Haiti, and other disasters and emergencies. During the oil spill, for example, Crisis Commons developed a free cellphone app to help crowd-source real-time data and imagery of the crude oil spill along the Louisiana coast.

Frost tells me the VizLab also is working to make it easier to incorporate “crowd-sourcing” images from smartphones and other mobile devices that include the date, time, location, and textual information into the Web-based disaster maps they’re creating. In a recent exercise, for example, the VizLab worked with the help of companies such as Charlotte, NC-based Sports Media Challenge, which uses a social media mining service called Buzz Manager to monitor and aggregate messages from various social media platforms and forward them to the appropriate organizations.

A small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with a 4-foot wingspan also has proved extremely useful for aerial surveillance of wildfires and other disasters, Frost tells me in a recent e-mail. The aircraft, which is being developed by SDSU researcher Mike Hennig, can provide high-resolution images, fly in windy conditions considered unsafe for helicopters, and is far cheaper to operate, Frost says. “The idea is to rapidly gather high-resolution imagery and be able to send back out to firefighters and others on Mobile Data Computers or smartphones.”

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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