Researchers use DoD satellites to aid Burma relief workers

US university turns images into tools for aid organizations working in devastated areas

Scientists at Arizona State University are using satellite images from the US Department of Defense to aid disaster relief efforts in Burma.

And now they're also setting their sights on aiding relief efforts for earthquake victims in China.

The university's High Performance Computing Initiative has established a Web site aimed at providing aid organizations with up-to-date satellite images of conditions on the ground in Burma. Dan Stanzione, director of the Fulton High Performance Computing Initiative at ASU, told Computerworld that the site provides relief workers with critical images of ground conditions in the country that recently was devastated by a cyclone.

"We got the raw data and processed it to make it usable," said Stanzione. "It shows the relevant areas before and after the storm. We made it available to relief workers. They need to see what roads are accessible. Where can they land a plane? Where can they get a truck through? They want to have access to this data to figure out the conditions on the ground."

According to ASU, more than 130,000 people are dead or missing in Burma as a result of Cyclone Nargis, and nearly 2.5 million people are struggling to survive in the hardest-hit areas of the country.

Stanzione said members of his team at the university convinced the US Department of Defense to supply them with satellite images from before and after the storm. The satellite images were loaded into the school's proprietary geo-spatial software, called Minerva, which ties the images together and enables relief workers to zoom in on different areas.

The information and images still are being hosted at the university and Stanzione said they're still taking requests to pull up close-up shots of different hard-hit areas in Burma. "They consume it as they need it," he added.

The ASU team is now looking to supply similar geo-spatial imagery to dam assessment teams working in China, which last month was hit by a major earthquake that reportedly left five million people homeless and 87,000 dead or missing. The earthquake created so-called quake lakes, which are huge build ups of water caused by landslides or other debris blocking rivers.

"When there's a disaster like this, you want to help in the ways you're best able to," said Stanzione. "For us, we had some connections in the DoD and relevant agencies. We'd been trying to get into this area of imagery when it deals with humanitarian relief. We sort of had the capability ready and it made sense that if we could get this data out of the DoD in a timely fashion, that this was an easy way to get out there and do what little we can to deal with these disasters in Burma and China and wherever else they occur.

"We can send checks, but there's very little else you can directly do to make it easier for the relief workers," he added.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld

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