The Power of Spatial information is its Tangibility

EarthzineEssay Contest 2013, Essays, Original, Sections, Technology

By Sara LaFia
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, California, U.S.

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A team of DEVELOP interns at NASA Langley Research Center have utilized NASA’s Earth Observing System to assess North Carolina’s exceptionally harsh 2011 wildfire season. Image Credit: North Carolina Disasters Team, NASA DEVELOP National Program.

We live in an era of increasing interdisciplinary connectivity on every front, especially in the field of science and remote imagery. Where only specialists once understood disparate pieces of information, Earth science technology promises to reveal complex patterns underlying many natural and manmade phenomena. It is now possible to use the international constellation of satellites orbiting Earth to view our planet as one interconnected system. In many ways, the data that satellites provide exceeds the perception of humans, as sensors aboard can visualize Earth in a spectrum beyond that of visible light, for example, by producing infrared images of our planet and recording measurements in remote and inaccessible locations to an astonishing degree of accuracy. The ability to examine powerful forces at play at such a scale has been beyond mankind’s reach until recently.

Arguably, the most important use of this technology is harnessing its power to answer some of the most urgent questions facing humanity today, such as climate change, which is impacting the systems humans rely upon for survival — atmosphere, water, weather — and their interplay. Natural disasters are the result of these systems interfacing in complex ways, costing billions of dollars in repairs to infrastructure, taking hundreds of lives and creating some of the most devastating impacts that Earth has seen. Earth science technology, namely rapid imaging in the aftermath of a natural disaster, has the potential to save lives and prevent further damage from occurring.

This fall, I have the amazing opportunity to work as a student intern with NASA’s DEVELOP program utilizing Earth observations from NASA to automate damage validation in hopes of improving disaster response time. Satellites, such as the LANDSAT, generate great amounts of imagery on a frequent basis. It is may soon be possible to acquire this data within several days after a disaster and apply a variety of algorithms to the data to filter out ‰ÛÏnoise‰Û such as changes in vegetation and other non-structural damage, generating a clear picture of destruction that can be used by first responders and policymakers in the aftermath of crisis. This new technique for damage detection promises to streamline the analysis of large and overwhelming data sets and lessen the wait time for post-disaster imagery.

Because time spent waiting to receive the imagery from a satellite after an event has been significantly shortened in the past decade, the next logical step is to create a means of rapid distillation of this data to people on the ground, who can quickly put this information to use. Currently, validating the data is a lengthy process however, because it is done by many organizations, often volunteers, who use a variety of methods and software, ranging from Google Earth to ArcMap, to cross reference the imagery. This step in response now takes the longest and is an impediment to rapid response. I am currently working with a student team to develop a standardized process by overlaying building footprints with the satellite imagery to automate damage detection validation, ensuring that the highlighted areas of imagery indicate actual structures.

In this way, Earth science technology offers a great benefit to the public. Automating damage validation has the potential to broaden user participation and improve services in the wake of natural disasters. Creation and use of damage maps will no longer be the exclusive domain of experts in the abstract and technical arena, but will be open to all and may include a participatory element, allowing users to input their own observations, validating the map on the fly or live updating it through social media as events transpire.

Additionally, utilizing Earth science technology for disaster response is ushering in a new era of collaboration among agencies and end users, as international space agencies share imagery with each other and with the affected communities in a timely fashion. Satellites from Italy and Japan have provided the U.S. with vital imagery during recent catastrophes. Having a wealth of information from which to draw ensures high quality data for end-users. Processing the data rapidly to share with communities that need it ensures that it reaches federal, regional, local, private, nonprofit and individual users as efficiently as possible.

Earth science technology has the potential to reach viewers in a more direct way and can convey technical spatial data to the public visually. It has been said that a picture conveys a thousand words. A well-processed satellite image can do this and serve as a call to action for communities around the world, regardless of the language spoken or the level of user expertise. The power of spatial information is its tangibility.

I envision a future in which spatial data is integral to public decision-making. In this century of increasingly accessible Earth science technology, the possibility of analyzing emerging trends in near real time is eminent. More innovative uses of geospatial data are emerging every day, spurred by innovation and collaboration between citizens and their governments, federal agencies working with academia, and among the general public. Earth science technology is changing our dialogue by introducing new ways to approach critical questions using imagery, increase community capacity and build resilience to confront some of the most pressing issues of our time.


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