Geospatial data spreads like wildfire

Web-based FireLocator tool delivers information from a variety of sources in real time

Real-time information can be a lifesaver if you’ve got a wildfire bearing down on your home. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in that position – but fortunate enough to have an active connection to the Internet – can turn to FireLocator for up-to-minute information.

FireLocator, a Web application from Pitney Bowes Software, offers a unique assemblage of data from a variety of public and private sources that might just save your life -- or at least ease your mind.

The Web application – which is currently in beta and can be accessed at www.firelocator.net – was built using MapInfo analytic tools and Microsoft Silverlight on top of Microsoft Virtual Earth. Users must install Silverlight to view the data. By default, current and recent wildfires are displayed on the map, with information available on fire perimeters, degree of containment, and causes, if known. The site also includes fire-related news, public-service information – such as the locations of shelters and other services – and multimedia content.

FireLocator doesn’t offer any query tools, but it does allow site visitors to turn layers of data off and on. Currently, the application offers data layers that include:

  • fire boundaries from Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination (GeoMAC), an Internet mapping application hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey at www.geomac.gov
  • NASA thermal satellite data
  • California wildfire risk zones
  • Department of Agriculture aerial thermal images
  • data from the Incident Information System
  • local news from the San Bernardino County Sun
  • citizen-provided information from Flickr

Users can enter a location such as a street address, neighborhood or even area of interest and zoom in to view details in that area.

Subhed: New uses for geospatial tools

Pitney Bowes, the maker of the MapInfo suite, has built the FireLocator site both as a public service and to explore and demonstrate new capabilities for real-time Web-based geospatial tools.

“Too many people equate location intelligence with putting a map up and putting some data on it,” said Arthur Berrill, president of advanced concepts and technology for Pitney Bowes MapInfo. “That's the easy part and that's the bit will just use Virtual Earth for. The tricky part is actually orchestrating everything behind the scenes.”

There has been a major shift in geospatial application delivery, Berrill said. “There has been a flip-flop. It is actually now more likely that an Internet-based application is superior in its interactivity and its purpose and for the customer to use. We think that FireLocator is an illustration of that. You could do it on the desktop but it would be cumbersome.”

While it is not clear just who is using the application as yet, the response has been very strong, with more than 273,000 hits in November, Berrill said.

A lot of important data isn’t yet up on the site. There is, for example, no wind data or weather prediction data. “You can certainly imagine that it could be put there,” Berrill said. “One of the things that I'm very interested in is the smoke plumes. One of the things we learned was that the threat of the fires is almost dwarfed by the threat of the traffic problems caused by heavy plumes of smoke. The fire may not even be near you but plumes of smoke crossing your escape route are at least as effective as that of a fire in shutting down an escape." 

Journalist participants also say the project has a lot of potential. “This is clearly a valuable innovation for our newspapers," said Frank Pine, senior managing editor of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group's Inland Division, which includes the San Bernardino County Sun. “We are always looking for ways to be more dynamic and interactive in the way we present news on the Web. … FireLocator is an excellent way for us to be able to provide that information.”

As with any new form of information delivery, there are still some kinks to work out. A key concern is data validation: Who checks the accuracy of the information posted on the site?

The current policy is that data accuracy is vouched for by the channel providing the data, whether it is the San Bernardino Sun or NASA. “The only space where we put somewhat doubtful information up from is Flickr,” Berrill said. Flickr accepts unchecked postings directly from the public.

Without data validation, there is a “danger of people maliciously putting the wrong thing there and guiding people the wrong direction,” Berrill acknowledged.

For Pine, the key ingredient is data labeling. “The organic advantage of the Internet is that information is immediately available from an incredibly broad network of residents,” he noted. “It is impossible for us to edit or monitor every piece of content that is contributed even to our existing Web site by the public. I think that's an advantage of the Flickr feed, that its content would be available although it would be labeled in such a way as to make it clear that it is not vetted newspaper content.”

“If you are a resident and you’re trying to figure out what's going on you don't want a newspaper to filter out anything that didn't come from the newspaper. You want access to the widest range of material possible and this is the type of thing that allows that to happen,” Pine added.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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