Hours after last month's earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, as reports of the extensive damage and loss of life began to trickle in, the international community began looking for ways they could help. For Professor Hiroyuki (Hiro) Iseki, an assistant professor of urban planning who grew up in Hyogo, Japan, the desire to contribute in some way resonated close to home.
"Initially my position was not so different from my friends and colleagues who were concerned about people in Japan," says Iseki, "but I think they were looking to me to feel more connected to what was happening, which in turn made me more aware and more connected to my home country. I knew I needed to act."
Within hours after the disaster, Iseki had the opportunity he was looking for; to volunteer his expertise in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to assist relief efforts.
Iseki was recruited by friend and former UCLA colleague, Yoh Kawano, who was compiling a small team of GIS experts to assist in a project for the volunteer group, GISCorps. Their mission: to gather key geographic information to help humanitarian organizations on the ground in areas hard-hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Developed in partnership with Crisis Commons, the project was part of a request from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to provide current information for aid missions in Japan.
Just thirty-six hours after the disaster, the team was assembled and set to work. They began the painstaking process of scouring the internet in an effort to collect as much vital data as possible, then translating and sorting it into useable datasets for the international community. Iseki, one of only two team members who spoke fluent Japanese, took the lead on the many complex translation issues faced by the group.
Although the project began as a straightforward data mining assignment, the team quickly realized the usefulness of visualizing some of the information they were collecting. So, a few days into the project they took an unexpected detour; organizing portions of data to create a user-friendly, interactive map easily accessible by humanitarian workers and Japanese refugees. The map can display a variety of real-time information, such as open evacuation shelters, flooded areas, water distribution centers and cleared roads, all on one URL.
"What is unusual about this information is the fact that a group of people in the disaster field collected information, and sent it to the database, using smart phone and the Internet. The master file is saved under Google Document, and is constantly updated," says Iseki. "So it's sort of dynamic real-time data, rather than one-time static data."
Compiling and sifting data only gave the team a small part of the picture, so several members, including Iseki, reached out to their friends and contacts in Japan for help. Not only where these connections the team's eyes on the ground, they assisted in gathering vital information such as census records and maps that would have otherwise taken weeks to acquire. One of Iseki's first assignments involved working with a communications team to create a map of free telephones, tapping friends in Japan working at Nippon for help. Now complete, his layer of the map helps aid workers and Japanese citizens locate free telephones and charging stations available across the country.
"Our faculty- including talented professionals like Hiro- possesses such diverse and extensive skill sets, which is a key to our success as a school of higher learning," says David Cronrath, Dean of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. "What is inspiring to me though is their uncompromised desire to put their expertise to good use outside of the classroom, making an impact of a truly global scale."
At the moment, the project is in a holding pattern; if more data becomes available the team can create more layers to the map. Iseki hopes that this exercise will be integral in helping other countries and volunteer groups better prepare for future disasters. It has also spurred the idea of a possible on-campus workshop to talk about the disaster and what lessons can be learned from a planner's standpoint.
"We learned a lot over the course of our project, which we will now be able to share with the international community in the event we face another catastrophe such as Japan," says Iseki. "Being a part of this collaborative volunteer effort was a very rewarding experience."
The School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland is home to four academic disciplines: architecture, urban planning, historic preservation and real estate development. Committed to educating its students and community about the importance of sustainability and smart growth, the School practices an interdisciplinary approach to education, research, creative work, and community and professional service. For more information, please e-mail us or call 301.405.8000.
School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation | Collaborative Education for a Sustainable Future