Making the invisible visible

To protect the nation from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) faces the daunting challenge of analyzing patterns in vast amounts of complex heterogeneous data, including text, photographs, emails, and satellite images. The DHS's ability to create predictive models based on these data is critical to the country's preparedness—and fortunately, they don't have to face this task alone.

With the 2004 creation of the National Visualization and Analytics Center (NVAC) five universities, including Penn State, have been tasked with developing a new generation of visualization and analysis tools to help the intelligence and emergency management communities better respond to natural or man-made crises.

Geovista
Courtesy GeoVISTA

Visualization of health and demographic data in Bulgaria from 1996-2004. Analysts can rapidly switch between medical and census variables in order to compare them by variable, by year, and by region. In this case, comparing high numbers of ethnic gypsies (purple) to high female death rates (green) reveals very high rates of both in the province of Montana (dark gray)

Alan MacEachren, E. Willard and Ruby S. Miller professor of geography, is the lead researcher of the North-East Visualization and Analytics Center (NEVAC) at Penn State.

"We're the only one of the five regional centers with a primary focus on geographic information," MacEachren says. Penn State's NEVAC team has two other crucial assets, he adds. "Our approach is very interdisciplinary and our GeoVISTA Center—in existence since 1998—has a history of working closely with colleagues in Information Sciences and Technology, cognitive science, and other disciplines.

Making critical information more accessible to emergency responders is a key part of NVAC's mission. "Look at the Hurricane Katrina situation," says MacEachren. "There was a pretty good national response plan but it didn't really get followed, partly because—for the average, on-the-ground emergency manager—it's not a very accessible document. I'm working with Prasenjit Mitra in IST to develop automatically generated 'concept maps'to visually represent and provide real-time access to these kinds of documents. The goal is to take complex texts and make it easy to visualize the people, places, and organizations described and how they're connected—and to leverage this information in response to the evolving situation."

Although all five of the university-based centers (the others are at Stanford, Purdue, a collaboration between UNC-Charlotte and Georgia Tech, and the University of Washington) are doing basic research, "we have a goal to make our projects relevant perhaps more quickly than with most basic science," notes MacEachren. Due to the highly critical nature of the issues faced by the DHS, "there's the expectation that some of the research will get turned into useful products in a one- to two-year time frame."

Alan MacEachren, Ph.D., is professor of geography and director of the GeoVISTA Center in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; maceachren@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 05, 2007