FAA maps hurricane damage

Mindjet visualization software helps manage recovery

The Federal Aviation Administration has found that a little lozenge can simplify a lot of information during times of crisis.

When a hurricane rips apart sections of the country, the FAA has to act quickly to get damaged airports operational again. Such work is a multidimensional effort, involving legions of engineers and technicians descending on an area to assess the devastation and get equipment operational.

'I like to say it's like playing 18 boards of chess at once, with all of them rotating. It keeps us constantly moving,' said Alan Stensland, who leads the FAA's hurricane-response team for the eastern region.

Naturally, managers need help organizing operations. Stensland adopted visualization software from Mindjet Corp. of San Francisco to sketch out complex scenarios and cluster together pieces of information. MindManager provides a palette on which users can enter data directly, as well as import or link to e-mails, office productivity files, Web pages, modeling software such as Microsoft Visio, Internet news feeds and other sources.

To create a MindManager data map, the user establishes a central topic by filling in a small box (which Mindjet describes as a lozenge) that sits in the middle of the screen. The group can then pull in data sources and draw links to the main topic or other information topics.

In the days before a hurricane lands, the FAA team predicts where the storm will hit and then fans out to prepare equipment that might be damaged, such as radars and radio transmitters. After the storm strikes, the team returns to assess the damage and fix broken equipment.

Stensland and other managers keep copies of MindManager on their laptop computers so they can share maps from ad hoc command centers in hotels, conference rooms or other facilities. Although Stensland once used spreadsheets, he prefers the visual approach, which allows him to rearrange elements more quickly. 'I think better graphically,' he said.

In the days after Hurricane Jeanne ripped through Florida in 2004, the response team used the software to track the locations of team members and partners, which numbered in the thousands.

Storms are unique

Each hurricane inflicts its own unique damage, therefore the team must always grapple with new challenges. As a result, any organizational application must be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of possible material. In many cases, the response teams won't know what type of information must be summarized until the disaster strikes.

'We let the event tell us what we need to do to respond,' Stensland said. 'Our job is to have the resources to react as needed when the events unfold.'

During Katrina, telecommunications were in short supply. Immunizations were another concern, so the team had to make sure each worker had the proper shots. During Wilma, power was scarce. Stensland was able to keep tabs on all these elements.

The software also offers a number of features to make the resulting maps easier to use, such as the ability to visually balance out topics on a map or fit them all into one window. Groups can eventually export the results of a map into a Word processor document.

According to Hobart Swan, external affairs manager at Mindjet, MindManager has been used in a variety of tasks around government. One agency uses it to manage human resources by mapping job descriptions. Other agencies use it for brainstorming, project planning and large systems development.

Any organizations that are 'capturing, organizing and sharing complex information,' could use MindManager to simplify things, Swan said.

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