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Auburn University

Students have used geospatial technologies to map more than 12,000 infrastructure elements along miles of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, enabling emergency responders to find critical utility points to restore services in the wake of natural disasters.

Emergency responders to Gulf Coast disasters execute their work under a double burden: They must restore critical services and utilities as quickly as they can, but first, they often have to find these infrastructure elements, which can be buried beneath piles of debris, under several feet of water, or washed away entirely.

Since 2009, Alabama-based Auburn University students have conducted an ambitious geospatial mapping project that gives disaster responders a tool to locate vital infrastructure points, saving precious time and reducing recovery costs by an estimated 40 percent.

Under the guidance of Professor of Management Chetan Sankar and other AU faculty from the business and engineering colleges and the geography department, 40 Auburn students have already collected geospatial data from 90 walking miles of Alabama’s coastline and mapped the geospatial locations of more than 12,000 infrastructure elements. In the process, they have also developed a regional model of data sharing for authorities.

The entire project, initially funded by a US Department of Commerce grant, is student-inspired and student-run. The idea stems from a doctoral dissertation in 2008 by then-Ph.D. candidate Barry Cumbie, for which AU students conducted a pilot in the city of Gulf Shores, AL. Since that time, with the project in full swing, undergraduate students do the lion’s share of field work while graduate students take on roles as project managers. Most of the data collection was completed in 2009 and 2010, culminating in its initial availability to participating agencies in summer 2010.

Vendor & Product Details
Laser Technology:
Topcon Positioning Systems:
Virtual Alabama:

Sankar views the university as the logical choice to lead the project and encourage collaboration among agencies and municipalities. “Cities are most interested in their own territorial boundaries,” says Sankar, “Whereas at the university we are serving the whole state, and our students come from everywhere. So the ability to lead the project as a cooperative effort amongst different partners, I think, comes more naturally to the university.”

For data collection, students use Topcon GMS-2 GPS hand-held units in conjunction with ArcGIS software from ESRI. In the field, they take coordinates and photos of infrastructure elements such as electric power poles, street lights, transformers, gas meters and valves, telephone switches, cable or fiber optic boxes, storm water inlets, fire hydrants, water meters and valves, sewer manholes and pump stations, and many more such fixtures. TruPulse 360B laser finders, from Laser Technology, are useful as range finders when students cannot get right alongside the fixtures. A Dell notebook computer is all that’s needed to store data at the work site. Data points uploaded with the ArcGIS software can be displayed against a topological layout to see just-completed work in context. Finally, cumulative data is hosted on a secure information-sharing platform, Virtual Alabama, and made available to cities, utility companies, and other official entities.

Now that a major body of data has been collected, students will be able to focus more on community outreach and public relations to communicate the usefulness of the project and facilitate the ways agencies will access and use the data. “Different cities and utilities have different requirements,” explains Sankar. “So we are working with them to find out how each of them wants the data.”

Sankar sees geospatial technology as a growing field, and he hopes the project will serve as a useful model for areas beyond Alabama. “More than half of the global population resides within 120 miles of a coastline,” he points out. “This project uses a unique student-centered data collection methodology and GIS technologies that can be replicated in other coastal communities.”

About the Authors

Meg Lloyd is a Northern California-based freelance writer.

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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