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SDSU Researchers Help Battle Colorado Fires From Hundreds Of Miles Away

Above: Eric Frost, director of San Diego State University's Vizualization Center (Viz Lab) explains how he collects massive amounts of photos and data from social media to create detailed three-dimensional imagery, July 2, 2010.

A team at SDSU’s Immersive Vizualization Center, known as the Viz Lab, is creating three-dimensional maps and imagery for Colorado’s emergency responders and residents during one of Colorado's worst wildfires in more than a decade.

Researchers make the imagery by collecting massive amounts of photos and data from sources like social media and satelites. The end result is a detailed visualization of the fire, including perimeter, topography, flame heights, and weather and ground conditions.

The goal is to save lives and property and enhance firefighter safety.

Viz Lab founder and director Eric Frost said Twitter has become an invaluable resource for disaster control.

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Waldo Canyon Fire Tweets

“And if you have tens - to hundreds of thousands of people who are looking, taking a picture and sending it, you have a date, time, location of something that’s going on. And especially if it has a hashtag that puts it into the same database -- all of those pieces of information can come together where you have all sorts of observations.”

The Viz Lab's computer programs can link patterns of data together to make three-dimensional visualizations, which provide a greater situational awareness for decision-makers and the public.

"So you have all these people that you got the data from and if you can take what you made and send it back to them, what you've had is a transaction," he said.

Frost said social media is also helping with accuracy.

"You have hundreds of thousands of people thinking and asking the same thing and then trying to find the answer by calling somebody or doing something and finding 'that was totally bogus,' or 'yeah, you’re never going to believe this.'"

Frost said a tweet with a photo has a greater impact than a radio call that goes out saying, 'We have a structure that’s engulfed.'

“All of the sudden if you have this picture of this house that’s on fire and the swingset for the kids is on fire. And People look at the flames and go, this fire is really really dangerous. We better evacuate. That impacts people."

The Viz Lab’s technology has been used in all types of disasters, including the Japan earthquake and tsunami, Haiti earthquake,and gulf oil spill.

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