Global experts mobilize virtually for Haiti disaster relief

A “community remote sensing” tool that operates in a similar way to social networking sites has been set up to help disaster relief in Haiti.

The Web-based tool allows earthquake experts worldwide to pool knowledge quickly and effectively, according to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK Government’s funding agency for research and training in engineering and the physical sciences.

“The Virtual Disaster Viewer (VDV) is being used by relief agencies operating in Haiti to target emergency food and medical supplies, prioritise repairs to infrastructure to allow aid to reach where it’s most needed, and to plan reconstruction and recovery,” EPSRC said in a statement about the tool.


The development of the VDV, believed to be the first Web portal of its kind, was supported by funding from EPSRC. Its use to assist Haiti relief is funded by the World Bank.

“Hundreds of earthquake scientists and engineers have been working with the VDV to access high-resolution ‘before and after’ satellite and aerial photos of the disaster zone. These specialists are part of the newly created Global Earth Observation Catastrophe Assessment Network (GEO-CAN),” EPSRC added.

500 scientists, engineers deployed

GEO-CAN has deployed more than 500 scientists and engineers from universities and other establishments in 19 countries to assess the the impact of the Haiti earthquake. The network is coordinated worldwide by ImageCat, Inc., a US and UK-based R&D company providing technologies for risk and disaster management.

Each expert contributing to the Virtual Disaster Viewer is assigned a number of squares for damage assessment, with an area of over 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) covered in all, EPSRC said.

“The satellite and aerial photos show details down to the level of individual buildings, cars, vegetation and even folds in tents in temporary encampments.

“The experts then submit detailed assessments about the type and extent of damage caused to buildings, roads, bridges and other key infrastructure, and of where refugees are congregating,” EPSRC said.

Disaster zone master map

The VDV collates this information and builds up a master map of the damage and dislocation caused across the whole disaster zone. It can also integrate aerial intelligence with detailed ground-based photos as it allows field reconnaissance teams to upload photos in real-time. The data can be accessed through any Internet-connected device.

Said Tiziana Rossetto, leader of the Earthquake People and Interaction Centre (EPICentre) at University College London, and part of the VDV development team: “This is an excellent example of how research can be developed into an end-product capable of delivering tangible humanitarian benefits in a real-life crisis of shocking proportions.”

“The VDV enables rapid mobilization of leading-edge global expertise for rapid and detailed interpretation of earthquake damage,” said Beverley Adams, ImageCat’s UK Director.””For relief agencies dealing with an appalling tragedy like the Haiti earthquake, speed is of the essence. Working with the World Bank, we’re confident that the VDV is making a real difference in helping to bring desperately needed aid to Haiti’s shattered community.”

The VDV is also suitable for use in disaster situations such as hurricanes, tsunamis and floods, EPSRC noted.

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn