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SiteMap on a Microsoft Surface Table

Quick-and-easy GIS for first responders

Geographic information systems are powerful tools, but they have one major drawback for first responders – GIS programs can be as complex as they are powerful.

“One thing I noticed was that the people making the maps are always the GIS geeks, and they weren’t always deployed with the first responders,” said Richard Smith, who began his career at NASA on the day after the shuttle Columbia exploded in mid-air.  Smith was immediately deployed to the field for three months of mapping the agency’s recovery efforts. 

The fact that the GIS tools Smith was using were specialized, and that maps took some time to create, meant that first responders often weren’t using them.  “Maps were being underutilized in the field,” he said.

Now an assistant professor of GIS and Geospatial Surveying Engineering at Texas A&M University, Smith aims to remedy that gap.  He is developing an app called SituMap that is designed for use by and for first responders.

users can draw on SituMap

SituMap, which was written using the Bing Maps API, runs on Windows and is touch enabled.  The program was designed to be used by multiple users collaborating around a Microsoft Surface table.

“Remember the old war movies where the generals are standing around a map on the table?” Smith asked.  “That’s what we want.” 

With the touch of a finger on a Surface table or a Windows tablet, a user can both navigate maps and draw on them. 

Suppose there was a tanker spill, said Smith.  “There are going to be multiple actors,” he noted.  Fire personnel would need to set a perimeter and take measures to prevent a conflagration, while police would need to deal with traffic.  “They can look at the aerial photo and get a first basic situational awareness,” he explained. “They can then draw on the map so they could start making general plans.”

Commanders can, with a tap on the screen, position units.  And to get the information into the field, one simply takes a screenshot and texts or e-mails it to field personnel.

Smith opted against real-time sharing with field personnel because, he said, “one of the first things that tend to go down during a response is communications.”  Cell connections, he notes, are more reliable than Wi-Fi connectivity.  And even if the Internet goes down at headquarters, he said, SituMap will still function using cached information.

The primary emphasis of SituMap is on simplicity.  “We’re really targeting small-to-medium size police and fire departments, and they have no idea what GIS even is,” said Smith.  “We want to go very simple.”

As a result, the current version of SituMap includes no data sets or query tools, apart from those for finding locations and making simple measurements. “As we go forward, we’re looking to bringing in demographic information and we’ll look at adding tools that can, say, ‘Show me everyone within one-half mile of the spill.’”

Smith has launched a company, CartoFusion, to bring SituMap to market.  After release of the Windows version, he expects to develop versions for iOS and Android.  And while Smith said it’s important that SituMap be functional without an Internet connection, the company intends to design future versions with a cloud-based component.  But for now, Smith said, “We’ve got one fire to put out at a time, so to speak.”

Posted by Patrick Marshall on Jul 28, 2015 at 9:16 AM


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