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SDSU Researchers Track Oil Spill With Smart Phone App

— A new smart phone application is helping San Diego State University researchers track the scope and damage of the Gulf Coast oil spill. The same technology could be useful in San Diego during future wildfires, according to Dr. Eric Frost, director of the SDSU Immersive Visualization Center, or Viz Lab.

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Aired 5/25/10

A new smart phone application is helping SDSU researchers track the scope and damage of the Gulf Coast oil spill. The same technology could be useful in San Diego during future wildfires.

Dr. Eric Frost, director of San Diego State University's Immersive Visualization Center, explains how visualizations and maps are created using images and data during a crisis, such as the Gulf Coast oil spill, May 19, 2010.
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Above: Dr. Eric Frost, director of San Diego State University's Immersive Visualization Center, explains how visualizations and maps are created using images and data during a crisis, such as the Gulf Coast oil spill, May 19, 2010.

The smart phone application, Oil Reporter, lets residents of the Gulf Coast upload photos, videos and messages of what they see. The data is compiled by Frost and his team at the Viz Lab. Frost said when people take pictures of oil on a beach or of dead wildlife, "The smart phone’s Global Positioning System (GPS) pinpoints the location and gives it a timestamp."

The photos and data are then processed and analyzed. "So it's essentially a network of information," said Frost.

Users can rank the amount of oil they find, with zero meaning clear water and 10 representing thick oil.

Frost said by putting together tens of thousands of photos and data, his team can create "one massive visualization" with photo slider-bars, maps and information that will show changes to the coast over time.

He said visualizations are helpful for decision-makers, emergency responders and the public in providing a greater situational awareness.

Frost said this technology could be used in all types of disasters, including San Diego wildfires. "Because when there’s a fire, there’s normally people all around it. Most of those people would have cell phones," Frost said.

Frost explained if all of the photos were sent to one place through a similar technology, "emergency officials could get a thorough picture of the fire," he said. "And they could see, here’s the fire at 10:15, here’s the fire at 10:30," Frost said. "And people could actually see where it’s growing and how it’s growing."

Frost said his team is part of a network of researchers working with Crisis Commons, an online community that uses technology to respond to crises.

Frost said involving local people during a disaster lets them feel useful, connects them to other people and keeps them informed at the same time.

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