September 29, 2010 By Andy Opsahl

San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center, popularly known as the Viz Lab, has transformed how responders navigate disasters. Founder Eric Frost spent years using his geographic visualization skills to help fuel companies find oil. In 2000, he began applying the techniques he developed to disaster response. Frost, a geographer, secured space at the university, computer hardware grants and a team of like-minded experts to create the Viz Lab. Soon after, he and the team began negotiating the declassification of data from various government agencies within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and others.

See the video footage from Emergency Management magazine’s trip to the Viz Lab.

The results were animated maps showing damage locations, hospitals, refugee camps and other data rarely available to responders as quickly in the past. This enabled humanitarian operations to target limited resources where need was most critical. As the Viz Lab’s credibility rose within the disaster response field, the U.S. Navy took notice and began paying the group to assist the Navy’s humanitarian efforts.

The collaboration gave Frost and other Viz Lab staff even more clout to use data from other agencies. With the imagery declassified, the Viz Lab and Navy created to display it for anyone interested. The group was viewed as essential during the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, 2010’s earthquakes in Haiti and Mexicali, Mexico, and San Diego’s 2007 wildfires. Emergency responders routinely visit the Viz Lab for recommendations on equipment purchases and methods for receiving data in remote areas. Although the Navy funds the lab, it operates independently, and its advice is seen as free of monetary bias. A look at the group’s founder and team of experts might spur more ideas among emergency managers about how they can collaborate with an essential organization functioning mostly behind the curtain.

Insufficiency of Words

Almost anyone can relate to the difficulty of interpreting situations and instructions purely through verbal communication. A key purpose of the Viz Lab is to convey more of what a field professional processes in his or her mind. Think about all of the variables and connections people process instantly in their minds based on what they see. In disaster response, what a person sees in the field can be vastly different from what someone in a remote command center perceives from radio and written descriptions.

Before the Viz Lab was established, instant messenger-style chat and voice were the primary communication channels available to these decision-makers. With the lab’s geographic imagery, disaster response participants often communicate simply by passing around pictures unaccompanied by e-mail text, according to Alex Hatoum, director of Latin America for the Viz Lab. He described an incident after the 2010 earthquake in Mexicali. Hatoum came across a damaged aqueduct, photographed it with a GIS-enabled camera, sent it to the Viz Lab, and got back a map depicting where that aqueduct was in relation to the land above where the earthquake originated.

“I didn’t even have to send an e-mail. We took the picture, and we sent just the picture with our GPS location. That’s it,” Hatoum said. “We didn’t have to say, ‘Look at the aqueduct.’ It was apparent from the picture. They knew exactly where we were because it was geo-tagged, and that was all that was needed to explain what was needed and what was in front of us.”

Viz Lab maps are also 3-D, which helps participants less experienced with maps understand a situation more vividly, in Frost’s view. He pointed to wildfires as an example.

“Fire is so topographically driven many times, and with three-dimensional maps, you can then see where the people are and say, ‘Oh, these people can’t see the fire because they’re down in this canyon,’” Frost said, later adding, “You can manipulate it — turn it sideways, and up and down. You can look at how high [or low] something is, where the smoke is and put the weather on top of that. You can actually see complexity that even a firefighter who’s really good at [two-dimensional maps] can’t do.”

The Viz Lab’s maps also help military officers demonstrate strategy and predictions about enemy patterns more quickly, Hatoum said. He pointed to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that used the lab’s maps. Lab staff plotted the locations of various improvised explosive device attacks in both countries. The map revealed that insurgents were correctly predicting movements of U.S. troops and other allied forces.

“If you stretched the time scale out for weeks at a time, months at a time, and then even years at a time,” Hatoum said, “you could really see the pattern — how they knew what routes we were taking — the fact that they would concentrate on different sectors based on what was going on that week.”

He said the speed at which officials could understand the point based on visual aid was the key to rethinking strategy. “Unless you visually represented it on a map and added the points, there was no other way you could have determined that from just having a text of all the dates and locations,” Hatoum said.

Transformative Alliance

Before a responder hits the ground of a disaster site, in many cases he or she already has myriad pieces of information that weren’t available prior to the lab’s founding. The responder knows the whereabouts of damaged buildings, road obstructions, places to which crowds are fleeing and potentially better places to evacuate them. Making that possible is the Viz Lab’s relationship with the Navy and its access to aerial photographs taken from Navy P-3 Orion planes. In the past, only the Navy could view that imagery.

Frost and other Viz Lab staff established a negotiating process for making the data public. Navy officials desired to share the data in pre-Viz Lab years, but the agency’s laws about what was and wasn’t classified information made that cumbersome. Anything photographed by the P-3 planes was considered classified — even if it was something people could reasonably expect to see on their own like a military gas facility viewable from San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.

“The military has imagery of this facility, and they consider that top secret, but you and I can go on Google Earth and find the same imagery — maybe not to the same resolution, but it’s essentially the same imagery,” Hatoum said.

The Viz Lab served as a mechanism for identifying similarly benign subject matter that the Navy could photograph and declassify for disaster responders. In some cases, negotiations consisted of crafting ways for the military to release images without revealing legitimately classified data. For example, footage frequently showed annotation from the military cameras used for the photography — data the military wanted to remain a secret. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake response, negotiations with the lab resulted in the Navy scrubbing that annotation and releasing the footage.

Once the photography is declassified for the Viz Lab’s use, it’s posted on “The moment that it was sent off the airplane, it was uploaded to our site and we put it out on the Internet for anyone to use,” said Dan Engle, an adviser to the Viz Lab on naval matters. “No DoD asset has ever done that before — to release imagery like that on the Internet. Once the negotiation process was established with the Navy, other government and nongovernmental agencies began making requests for P-3 photographs through the Viz Lab.”

“On an ad hoc basis, we would forward those [requests] to the Navy and ask on a ‘not-to-interfere’ basis — assuming they were in that area — if they could just look,” Engle said.

Many organizations have access to P-3 aerial photography, thanks to this process.

Hatoum said it made more sense for the Viz Lab to make the maps instead of the Navy because the federal Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 stringently prohibits military agencies from storing data about U.S. citizens, businesses and other entities.

“For example, if you drove a boat personally from Mexico to New York with drugs, and the military had that information, they would have to hand it over to a law enforcement agency within 60 days,” Hatoum said.

A university, by contrast, has much more freedom with information than a military or other governmental organization because of different regulations.

Rich Visualization for Poor Networks

The potential uses for innovative responder communication devices are limitless with robust broadband, but responders usually can’t get strong broadband connections. Infrastructure is frequently either damaged or clogged with panicked cell phone users.

“Everybody is getting conditioned to think they’re always going to have these fast speeds to their phones,” said Steven Birch, a senior scientist for the Viz Lab. “As long as you’re not in overpopulated areas, it will work fine. Imagine you were in the stadium in New Orleans [during Hurricane Katrina] when everybody was being crammed in there — your high-speed connection would probably fall to pieces.”

In such environments, responders need data and applications that travel smoothly with dial-up speeds, Birch said. Oftentimes, the GIS maps that governments give responders are PDFs bloated with irrelevant data. During a wildfire, firefighters might receive a map that includes boundary lines identifying local, state and federal land ownership. That’s useful information once the fire is extinguished because it helps all the agencies involved determine who to bill for what parts of the response. However, firefighters don’t care about such details while they’re extinguishing the fire, Frost said. The Viz Lab spends a lot of time talking to disaster responders about data that’s practical during the heat of the moment. This enables Frost’s staff to send smaller files containing only that information. The lab also advises fire departments, military agencies and others on technologies they should buy to work in conjunction with those files.

“We are not tech vendors. We don’t have an agenda to push. We are tech users,” Birch said.

The lab recommends, for example, that responders be able to receive files that have been run through software called GeoFusion, which alters the data into a format that traverses smaller networks more efficiently.

The Viz Lab also advises responders on maximizing network capacity. For example, the lab recommends a less traffic-intensive way of using Google Earth, which usually involves a bandwidth-hungry live stream. Thanks to Viz Lab’s recommendations, responders use an offline version of Google Earth. They receive piecemeal data sets and get exactly what they need, often via dial-up speeds.

“Think of it as data triage, which allows the end-users to have the information they need,” Birch said.