NASA Spinoff

Information Systems Coordinate Emergency Management

NASA Technology

The rescue crews have been searching for the woman for nearly a week. Hurricane Katrina devastated Hancock County, the southernmost point in Mississippi, and the woman had stayed through the storm in her beach house. There is little hope of finding her alive; the search teams know she is gone because the house is gone.

altLate at night in the art classroom of the school that is serving as the county’s emergency operations center, Craig Harvey is discussing the search with the center’s commander. Harvey is the Chief Operating Officer of a unique company called NVision Solutions Inc., based at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, only a couple of miles away. He and his entire staff have set up a volunteer operation in the art room, supporting the emergency management efforts using technology and capabilities the company developed through its NASA partnerships. As he talks to the commander, Harvey feels an idea taking shape that might lead them to the woman’s location. Working with surface elevation data and hydrological principles, Harvey creates a map showing how the floodwaters from the storm would have flowed along the topography of the region around the woman’s former home.

Using the map, search crews find the woman’s body in 15 minutes.

Recovering individuals who have been lost is a sad reality of emergency management in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the sooner answers can be provided, the sooner a community’s overall recovery can take place. When damage is extensive, resources are scattered, and people are in dire need of food, shelter, and medical assistance, the speed and efficiency of emergency operations can be the key to limiting the impact of a disaster and speeding the process of recovery. And a key to quick and effective emergency planning and response is geographic information.

With a host of Earth-observing satellites orbiting the globe at all times, NASA generates an unmatched wealth of data about our ever-changing planet. This information can be captured, analyzed, and visualized by geographic information systems (GIS) to produce maps, charts, and other tools that can reveal information essential to a wide variety of applications—including emergency management. Knowing precise, real-time information about the size, location, environmental conditions, and resulting damage of an event like a flood or wildfire—as well as the location and numbers of emergency responders and other resources—contributes directly to the effectiveness of disaster mitigation. The need for such information is also evident when responding to homeland security threats, such as a terrorist attack.

Recognizing the value of its geospatial information resources for this and other purposes, in 1998 Stennis and the state of Mississippi partnered to form what became the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions (EIGS) industry cluster, supporting the growth of remote sensing and GIS-based research and business. As part of EIGS, several companies partnered with NASA through dual use and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts. Among those was NVision.

Partnership

altFounded in 2002 through a technology incubator under EIGS, NVision sought to capitalize on the geospatial information Stennis could offer.

“We started the company with two people in an empty office, no money, and a single piece of paper with a logo we thought looked cool,” says Harvey. “We were local people who saw the opportunity.” The opportunity, he explains, was employing NASA’s constantly updated geographic data to provide essential, practical information to users in real time.