Columbia Disaster was a Watershed Moment for Geospatial Awareness

by Matt Ball on February 2, 2011

There’s a well-written story that profiles the Columbia Regional Geospatial Service Center on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University in the San Angelo Standard-Times. It’s the eighth anniversary of that tragic large-scale disaster, and the piece profiles this center that rose from the positive awareness of geospatial technology that resulted from the event.

“One of the legacies of the shuttle is a broader embracing of geospatial technology for emergency response,” said PR Blackwell, director of the center.

Columbia provided a showcase for the combination of GPS and GIS to capture the location of the debris that landed on the ground, and demonstrated the power of the technology. This showcase helped change the way government agencies respond to emergencies and gave agency leaders a better understanding of what geospatial technology can accomplish.

The Columbia response was a well-organized crowd of volunteers and professionals working on a massive search for clues and details in a sensitive mission of national importance. We’ve learned a great deal from the event, and continue to hone greater coordinated response. While we’ve come a long way, there’s still room for improvement.

It’s interesting to think of what today’s location-aware mobile phones, constant connections, and social networking sites might accomplish in similar scenarios. Increasingly, emergency response are embracing the power of the crowd for quick and thorough insight into events, using such tools as Twitter. The story closes with an embrace of what lies ahead, “with new technology comes new capabilities, and it’s up to us to figure out what to do with them.”

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