Katrina maps and photos via open source tools

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Tyler Mitchell
Sep. 19, 2005 03:34 PM

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URL: http://katrina.telascience.org/...

Up-to-date maps and imagery are key to the rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Armed with a handful of online mapping tools, plenty of enthusiasm and access to more data than most of us would know what to do with - a band of developers puts the data onto the web for all to see and use. It's available in a variety of formats, including web pages, an Active X viewer and the open standard web mapping services.

It began with a set of 1,500 JPEG images of the storm's aftermath from the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Norman Vine (University of New Hampshire, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and MapServer hacker) and Mark Lucas (L3-Titan) worked with NOAA to get access to the data so that the group could pull together some products, with the hope of having a useful product available quickly. Instant communication on the project was possible through Internet Relay Chat, bringing together several colleagues who helped support the project further.

Flown as high resolution digital aerial photography, the data was ready to be brought together into an image mosaic, but not without some heavy-duty preparation first. Vine, with some help from Garrett Potts (L3-Titan) prepared and mosaicked the data using the Open Source Software Image Map (OSSIM, pronounced "awesome") toolset, which L3-Titan helps maintain. With some back-and-forth with the right people at NOAA, a useful product was brought together in half a day.

The information wouldn't be much help if it remained as a dataset requiring an image processing package, so a set of web mapping interfaces were pulled together. John Graham, from San Diego State University's Visualization Center, helped provide the massive amount of bandwidth and storage required to serve up the map images.

The maps were served up using a variety of methods prepared by Vine, Graham and others. An open standard's-based Web Map Server (WMS) was prepared using the open source web mapping toolkit, MapServer. This allows you load the data directly into an application you have that supports that standard. The maps are also provided through an ESRI ArcIMS emulator using Twisted Python and MapServer MapScript.

A basic HTML/CGI interface was also prepared, allowing interactive viewing through a web browser. Chuck Stein, from GeoFusion, added their Active X-based viewer to the mix, providing some further ways of visualising the information.

Howard Butler, from Hobu.biz, also brought in the ability to do geocoding, based on the geocoder.us technology. Now, users can enter an address and see the imagery for that location.

Much more work has been done since the original incarnation, but the most basic web maps were up and running within 48 hours of receiving the imagery. More data and refinements are underway.

The success and quick delivery of this project is thanks to several geospatial products. But, the more encouraging thing to see is how various organisations have been able to work together, in near real-time, to help bring critical information to a wide audience.

I thought this comment by Mark Lucas summed it well:

"More missions have been flown, data moved and mosaics generated. There are now many different types of data sets and over 5000 high resolution images geocoded and mosaicked online...Along the way members from NGA, NRO, USGS, NRL have been very supportive and interested. The site is now on the master list of resources for disaster response for Katrina and has briefed to decision makers within the various government agencies. It has been one of the finest collaborations between government, academia, research, and open source software developers that I have ever witnessed."

I will be watching to see how well others can emulate the process to improve reaction to similar problems in the future. Good work guys!

Tyler Mitchell is the author of Web Mapping Illustrated - a book focused on teaching how to use popular Open Source Geospatial Toolkits. He works as the Executive Director of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation, aka OSGeo.