Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Viz Lab Transforms How Responders Navigate Disasters

The Immersive Visualization Center produces 3-D maps that dramatically expand responders’ knowledge in a disaster’s aftermath.

[Photo: Eric Frost is the founder of San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center. Photo by KC Alfred Photography.]

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 InRelief.org 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. 

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