Catastrophe technology

Having vital location or map-based information at their fingertips could make the difference between life and death for rescue workers and emergency services working at the scene of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.


A research centre is being launched at The University of Nottingham to look at how the latest advances in computer software and mobile communications could help agencies to prepare for a major event, such as the 2012 Olympic Games, and plan their response should a disaster or incident occur.


In emergency situations, professionals have to make tough, on-the-spot decisions on how to deal with a range of issues, whether it be when to evacuate homes, how to get commuters home when public transport is out of action or how to get the injured to life-saving medical treatment.


In dealing with these challenges, it is essential that people are able to access information on, for example, which flood barriers are likely to breach first, which roads are impassable to motorists and which hospitals have the right specialist equipment. But problems can arise when data is held by a wide range of agencies and on different computer systems.


The Centre for Geospatial Sciences, being launched at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in London on Monday November 21, brings together leading experts in geographic information technology, human factors and spatial cognition and computer science.


Among the research will be work looking at how to get different specialised computer systems to ‘talk’ to one another so that huge amounts of data held by different organisations from all over the world could be accessed and analysed over the internet or via mobile devices.


Another strand will study the issue of tracking, monitoring and navigation. This includes the use of GPS in-car navigation and traffic and pedestrian modelling and management, which could be used to find the best routes from the scene of a disaster to the nearest hospital or in closing off roads around the affected area.


As part of this the researchers will be looking at how technology could be used to assist people in the use of map-based or location data. This could be used in situations like the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, which disrupted the public transport network and closed key roads, or even by personnel faced with more dangerous situations such as negotiating a way around landmines or avoiding enemy territory.


A challenge facing the research team will be how graphic information, such as maps, can be effectively communicated through mobile devices such as mobile phones and PDAs.


The technology has a range of potential applications in commercial areas as well as those associated with disaster management and mitigation. For example, direct marketing offering discounts via mobile phone when shoppers pass a particular store; services that can allow friends co-ordinate via their mobile phone to choose a place to have a drink; facilities for businesses to track the location of their staff while out working in the field; the use of sensory information from mobile devices, such as the vibrate setting on a phone, to issue directions to a location.