Rensselear Researchers Unveil Prototype Disaster Management Simulator

Engineers and scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are working to develop powerful new decision-making and data visualization tools for emergency management. These tools aim to help law enforcement, health officials, water and electric utilities, and others to collaboratively and effectively respond to disasters.

The interdisciplinary research project is a collaboration between William “Al” Wallace ’61, the Yamada Corporation Professor at Rensselaer, and a member of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE); Barbara Cutler, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science; and David Mendonça ’01, associate professor in ISE. All three faculty members will present today.

“Just as disaster response is a collaboration between many different agencies and decision makers, a project of this scope and ambition requires the expertise of faculty and students from different disciplines,” said Wallace, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We are delighted to share our progress with our friends and partners at federal, state, and other agencies. Their feedback, comments, and suggestions are vital to the progress and success of our research.”

This new technology combines Wallace’s world-leading expertise in infrastructure systems, Cutler’s research on augmented reality and data visualization, and Mendonça’s research on improvisation and decision making in unique disaster and emergency situations. The prototype features a map of a disaster area projected onto the movie theater-sized screen, with overlays detailing the location of hospitals, power plants, temporary shelters, and many other key landmarks, infrastructure, and critical data. Due to the complexity and interconnectedness of these infrastructure systems and data, responding organizations must collaborate to be effective. The researchers’ new system enables emergency officials from different backgrounds and different agencies to interact with the data collaboratively and at the same time.

The researchers are also developing ways to use this kind of environment to better study decision making. For a variety of reasons, it is rare for researchers to have an opportunity to observe the work of emergency response managers and responding organizations during an actual disaster. So the new technology is able to simulate emergency situations using data from past disasters and other simulations techniques.

Funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, as well as a Seed Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at Rensselaer, this project is expected to advance basic knowledge of sources of resilience—or “bounce back”—in infrastructure systems, and to produce tools and technologies for leveraging these sources.

Wallace will present on his work developing a web-enabled, open-source decision technology platform named MUNICIPAL, which is based on emergency response and restoration activities and data from a New Hanover County, N.C., hurricane situation. This project looks at different independently managed systems—such as power, water, communications, transportation, and hospitals—from a 30,000-foot perspective in order to map out and better understand the interdependencies among the varied infrastructure systems.

Wallace’s MUNICIPAL software helps emergency response officials identify these interdependencies ahead of time, and plan accordingly. The software also enables officials to input data about a particular storm or hurricane, in order to forecast how much damage will be wrought by the extreme weather.

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