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Geospatial Mapping | Interview

Geospatial Mapping for Coastal Infrastructure Recovery in Alabama

A brief Q & A with Chetan Sankar

Students at Auburn University are involved in an ambitious geospatial mapping project of infrastructure elements of coastal Alabama, that will, after a disaster such as a hurricane, offer responders a tool that will expedite recovery and reduce recovery costs by an estimated 40 percent. Funded in September 2009 as a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Principal Investigator and Professor of Management Chetan S. Sankar and other AU faculty from the College of Business, the College of Engineering, and the Department of Geography are leading the students, but the project is entirely student-run. The students have already collected geospatial data from 67 miles of Alabama’s coastline and mapped the GIS locations of more than 9,500 infrastructure elements. CT asked Sankar about the project.

Campus Technology: What is the objective of your project to map infrastructure elements of coastal Alabama?

Chetan Sankar: The basic objective of the project is that by mapping the infrastructure facilities in the coastal areas of Alabama, if there is a hurricane or some disaster, the information can be used so that the particular elements—for example a fire hydrant or a gas meter—can be located. For hurricane Katrina, the cleanup costs were $100 million. And most of the cleanup costs occur when debris is on top of these infrastructure elements. So the project will help save those recovery costs as well as expedite the recovery process.

CT: How are the students involved?

Sankar: The exciting part is that students get to work on a project that helps the economy of coastal Alabama. And the students are involved in all aspects of the project. They are involved in data collection, walking to and mapping all the infrastructure elements using GPS coordinates. They are involved in project management, working directly with people in the community, both learning from officials where to find the infrastructure elements and explaining the project to residents. It is a public relations effort to a degree, and the students have monthly newsletter to help with that. And finally, now that we have collected the data, the students will be involved in determining methods of recovery—working with the community to plan how to recover all the infrastructure elements.

CT: Does your project also coordinate with emergency management agencies in the state?

Sankar: There is a system called Virtual Alabama, which is run by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. It has information about all the different infrastructure elements in the state. So the students again are involved in uploading the data to Virtual Alabama. We are also working with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

CT: So in this role of making tools and plans for disaster recovery, does the university fit in well with local and state agencies?

Sankar: The university has good potential to lead such an effort. Cities are most interested in their own territorial boundaries, whereas at the university we are serving the whole state, and our students come from everywhere… So the ability to cooperate and lead the project as a cooperative effort amongst different partners I think comes more naturally to the university than to individual cities or utilities.

CT: Could your project serve as a model for other universities that might choose to join with others in their state in disaster recovery planning?

Sankar: The problem faced by the coastal community in Alabama is not unique. More than half of the global population resides within 120 miles of a coastline. This project uses a unique student-centered data collection methodology and GIS technologies that can be replicated in other coastal communities.

[Editor’s note: As a Campus Technology 2010 Innovator award winner, Chetan Sankar will be presenting information on the geospatial mapping project at Campus Technology 2010, July 19-22 in Boston.]

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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