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Mapping IT Strategies for Times of Crisis
Rich DG Partnerships Studies Voice-recognition and Advanced GIS Tools to Speed Crisis Management
For the DGRC

Geocollaboration on Crises

Researcher profile:
Alan MacEachren

" Port Authority of New York & New Jersey
" Florida Div. of Emergency Mgmt.
" U.S. EPA
" Centre Region/Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency
" Advanced Interfaces, Inc.

Project profile:
GeoCollaborative Crisis Management: Building Better Systems Through Advanced Technology and Deep Understanding of Technology-Enabled Group Work

One of the favorite images of movie and theatrical production designers is the "War Room," a vast, dark space, where officials in magnificent uniforms argue the fate of the world over a conference table that looks like it was sliced intact from a giant sequoia. Although wealthy cities may have dedicated command centers, for many emergency management teams, a "war room" is likely to be nothing more portentous than an average conference room, with linoleum-topped tables arranged in a square. It's the day to day business of administrative life, ramped up to crisis mode.

Suddenly, there is far less time to figure out if everybody has up-to-date maps, or if everybody is aware that Mountain Vista Drive and Mountain Drive are two different streets. What is the best way to manage under those circumstances? To determine what parts of the city need which kinds of help? To coordinate, fire, police and medical emergency services?

As officials from concerned agencies gather to assess what the appropriate responses should be, it becomes a group work challenge of the highest order. Too often it can be hampered by the same problems office workers always face - out-of-date and uncoordinated data and incompatible hardware systems.

To meet this challenge, Digital Government researcher Alan MacEachren, Director of the GeoVISTA Center at Penn State University and his fellow DG researchers are working with state, federal and local agencies as diverse as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centre Region/Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to help expedite group collaboration in emergency situations.

MacEachren's academic group, along with a Pennsylvania State technology transfer start-up, Advanced Interfaces, Inc., headed by fellow Penn State professor and co-PI Rajeev Sharma, is creating what they call a "GeoCollaborative Crisis Management System." (See a demo video here)

It is a distributed-projection system that will integrate the latest geospatial information systems (GIS) data into an easy-to-understand map interface. Responders will see a real-time map projected in their conference room or on remote PCs. Given the complexity of GIS software, that alone might be enough of an advance. But in order to enhance the speed at which discussion can be held, the researchers have gone a step further. When fully developed, their system will be able to "read" freehand gestures and "hear" descriptions, transducing them via advanced algorithms into highlighted points on the map and requests to the GIS database for more information.

Consider the experience we've all had during meetings that use projected maps and charts. A speaker tries to express an important idea - but both speaker and audience lose their concentration, when the speaker attempts to aim a laser pointer, and instead of pertinent information we hear, "So as we see, in district 5, which is to the upper left, well, actually, more over to the middle left, and, uh, a bit to the right ..."

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In situations where minutes and precision count, this otherwise innocuous fumbling can cost precious time. With the GeoCollaborative system, all someone would have to do is say, "Mountain Vista Fire Station," and point in its general direction, and the map would instantly spotlight the correct address. Every participant could comment immediately, without having to wait for someone to pass a pointing device. Most importantly, the prototype system allows wireless coordination, so that field responders working on tablet PCs, officials in remote offices and officials at central command centers can all participate together in real-time planning.

"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," says Eric Conrad, a former emergency administrator for the state of Pennsylvania, now a private consultant, "The quicker you can stop an event or respond to its aftermath, the less impact it has; GIS lets us do that."

"Our focus isn't on future scenario planning, but on how people collaborate when they're managing ongoing emergencies," says MacEachren. He and the Penn State team recently arranged an all-day meeting in Washington, DC with their state and federal partners to brainstorm over the best ways to collaborate. "It was an awesome way to spend a day," says Conrad, "You watched everyone come together and talk about how we need to share information - the challenge is that it has to be kept secure, and yet so many people need to know it."

The Penn State team will continue to work with their partners to perfect and extend the technology to best help groups of responders collaborate. "It's currently robust enough for limited tasks," says MacEachren, "You can use it to talk about past events or to do long-term planning; for real-time emergencies, it still needs refining. We're hoping to do tests with real crisis managers."