PITTSBURGH—A team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, NASA's Ames Research Center and Google will be honored by the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., for their work on the Global Connection Project, a joint software development effort that has helped rescue workers respond to natural disasters. The Tech Museum Awards, which recognize innovative uses of technology that help solve global challenges, will be presented during a Nov. 15 black-tie gala at the museum.
The Global Connection Project's software makes it possible to rapidly overlay aerial photos of disaster areas on Google Earth, the popular earth-imaging browser. It enabled rescue workers and evacuees to use the Internet to assess damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and monitor receding water levels in New Orleans in the weeks following the storm. The overlay software subsequently was used for hurricanes Rita and Wilma and for the earthquake in Pakistan.
"This was possible because we happened to be in the right place at the right time," said Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute.
The software was not developed with disasters in mind, Nourbakhsh explained. Rather, it was created to layer text and photographs from National Geographic magazine onto Google Earth, allowing users to not only see geographic features in great detail, but also read about the places and people, and peruse related photographs. In that way, the software addressed the project's goal of using imaging technology to help people learn more about each other and the environment.
But when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the software and the Global Connection Project staff served double duty, layering updated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aerial photos of the storm-damaged areas onto Google Earth.
"We were able to jump right in because we had already written the software for the National Geographic images," said Randy Sargent, project scientist at Carnegie Mellon's West Coast campus in Silicon Valley and co-principal investigator of the Global Connection Project with Nourbakhsh. As a result of the experience with Katrina and subsequent disasters, they are developing the infrastructure necessary to make disaster imaging routine.
The Tech Museum Awards present $50,000 to laureates in each of five categories — economic development, environment, education, health and equality. Global Connection is one of five finalists in the economic development category.
In addition to Nourbakhsh and Sargent, the disaster-imaging team included Terry Fong, Global Connection project leader at NASA Ames; and Anne Wright, also of NASA Ames. Google's participation was led by Brian McClendon, director of engineering for Google Earth.
Meanwhile, the Global Connection Project continues to expand its horizons, Nourbakhsh said. The National Geographic layer is now a standard feature of Google Earth, with text and photographic overlays released for North America and Africa. Overlays for the remaining continents are in the works. The researchers also are developing technology that will allow people to create high-resolution panoramas of their own environments, which can then be explored with an interactive interface similar to Google Earth.
The Tech Museum Awards, established in 2001, are presented by Applied Materials Inc. In addition to the 25 finalists being honored this year, the program will present its 2006 James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award to Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
For more information about the Global Connection Project, visit www.cs.cmu.edu/~globalconn/.