How an eye in the sky can help what happens on the ground

Published Sept. 12, 2013


Times Staff Writer

When a tornado dropped out of the sky over Moore, Okla., in May, the scene on the ground was chaotic. Emergency medics sped toward the jagged trail of destruction left by the EF5 tornado to provide aid. First responders advanced toward the storm's path. Parents rushed to find their children.

High in the sky above, a company called DigitalGlobe positioned a satellite over the scarred swath and captured a high-resolution image of Moore. It then plugged the image into a crowdsourcing application and sent out a call for help via email and social media, asking people across the country to decipher what they saw in the image. Hundreds joined in, scanning the satellite photo for three pieces of information: destroyed buildings, blue-tarped roofs and downed trees. When something fit the bill, they marked it on the communal map.

Within an hour, users had marked 15,000 points of interest on the photo, clearly marking the tornado's path of destruction, and DigitalGlobe made it available to emergency responders and aid organizations.

The mission is to reduce the time between data collection and decisions on the ground, and it has the potential to dramatically change the way we respond to natural disasters.

The Colorado-based company, which recently opened a branch in Tampa, says the technology and analysis will be useful for Florida, in the midst of another hurricane season.

In the event of a devastating storm, having quick images of flooding and damage from DigitalGlobe's five high-powered satellites can better direct response and even track patterns of human movement. One satellite captures images in eight spectral bands across visible and near-infrared light, and can pierce cloud cover. Analysis on top of the images makes them all the more useful.

"This fusion of information that you can get from a variety of different sources, it becomes a very powerful tool," said Stephen Wood, former vice president of DigitalGlobe's analysis center.

The company has for years provided images and analysis for the Department of Defense for wartime operations and for monitoring places of interest to the military, but it has recently branched into a variety of other areas.

It's working with actor George Clooney and the Washington, D.C.-based Enough Project to try to stop civil war in Sudan and track elephant poaching by the Lord's Resistance Army. It has documented the expansion of political prisons in North Korea and monitors protests and fighting in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. It's predicting fish movement for commercial fishermen and identifying pipeline vulnerability for oil and gas companies.


Lately, it's also changing policing. A technology called "geospatial predictive analytics" helped Virginia police catch a man who had been shooting at government buildings in 2010. By analyzing hundreds of factors — like the gunman's sight lines, the terrain and his proximity to public transit and escape routes — DigitalGlobe created a heat map showing the likelihood of potential targets. Police used the map to step up patrols in those areas.

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The idea of predictive technology is that humans, including criminals, go where they're comfortable and create routines. It's what retailers like Walmart use to anticipate how customers will spend their money. There's a reason your favorite cereal is always at eye level in the grocery store.

Assistant Chief John Bennett said the Tampa Police Department uses a similar type of analysis, identifying hot spots based on crime statistics, then trying to determine what factors might be contributing to the spike. But he said he stops short of collecting data like demographics of an area or home values.

"When we're doing our predictive analysis, we're not doing it based on things people wouldn't deem as criminal," he said. "We're not here to change culture. We're here to work with culture."


While its work in the field of natural disasters is relatively new, DigitalGlobe has been quick to provide federal, state and local emergency responders with images and analysis.

Before and after Hurricane Sandy, DigitalGlobe collected imagery of more than 40,000 square kilometers of the worst-hit areas along the New Jersey shore, Long Island and New York City, taking satellite images so focused you could make out storm-surge sand in the streets. Because of the amount of flooding and road destruction, analysts went to work drawing new maps for first responders, showing closed roads, schools, shelters, gas stations, firehouses and churches.

In those early hours and days after a hurricane passes, it's often difficult for responders to pinpoint areas heavily damaged and people in need. DigitalGlobe leaders think they can help, not just by crowdsourcing satellite images of damage, but by mapping and analyzing the entire terrain and even predicting the resiliency of individual communities, which respond to disasters differently.

It's a complicated equation, but previous hurricanes like Katrina and Rita have led scientists to begin to study and map social vulnerability — and some of what they're learning is counterintuitive.

"People will say, 'We've got a minority community with lower economics, so they'll be more vulnerable,' " said Steven Ward, a geospatial scientist at DigitalGlobe. "Not true. We've found that those groups respond well, while some more wealthy communities make slower recoveries."

Ward said a community's resiliency is determined by a variety of factors, 72 in all, such as education, proximity to evacuation routes and proximity to schools and libraries. Open churches and schools, which operate as community anchors, shelters and staging zones, drive a quicker recovery, for instance. All that data can be gathered and layered on a map.

So if scientists can analyze and map the vulnerability of a neighborhood and predict hot spots, so to speak, leaders can send resources on the front end of a storm so residents are better prepared.

"If out of our analysis we learn that single mothers of Latin descent with no access to evacuation routes are the most vulnerable, that's a group we can target, or send resources to, to make the community stronger," Ward said. "We can create more resilient survivors."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650.