Penn State digitizes critical data to aid in Fukushima cleanup

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan in March 2011, its shockwaves caused a nuclear meltdown that rivaled Chernobyl: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Luckily, the Penn State Engineering Library already had a collection of documents that Japanese scientists knew would help them in their recovery efforts.

Shortly after the disaster at Fukushima, Bonnie Osif, librarian in the College of Engineering, and her colleague (Thomas Conkling, head of the Engineering Library) found themselves on a conference call with officials at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., who were interested in some of the cleanup and technical reports from the the TMI-2 collection. There was only one hitch: how to get the thousands of pages of information to the other side of the globe.

Penn State’s Engineering Library acquired a large archive of reports, videotapes and photographs from the disaster. These documents made up the Three Mile Island 2 (TMI-2) Recovery and Decontamination Collection.

Thirty-two years earlier, in March 1979, Pennsylvania suffered a partial nuclear meltdown of its own. Although much smaller in scope, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident was the worst in U.S. nuclear history. Following the cleanup, the Engineering Library acquired a large archive of reports, videotapes and photographs from the disaster. These documents made up the Three Mile Island 2 (TMI-2) Recovery and Decontamination Collection.

“The problem was getting this information quickly to Japan in a form they could easily use,” stated Albert Rozo, reformatting supervisor in Digitization and Preservation at Pattee Library. “The 93 reports Japan was interested in could easily fill many boxes and, while readable, could not be quickly searched.”

Rozo and Osif needed to find a way to expedite the reports to Japan and in a way that could be searched quickly. To come up with a solution, they teamed up with others in the Engineering Library and decided to digitize the records. Many of the documents were public domain and could be reproduced without permission, but those from other agencies needed to be cleared for duplication. Once permissions were granted, things progressed quickly.

Optical character recognition software recognized the images of the scanned pages of the reports and converted them to text which allowed them to be searched for key words and phrases.

“We took the documents, scanned them, and applied optical character recognition software, which converts images into electronic text that then can be searched for specific words or phrases,” Rozo explained.

The optical character recognition software (OCR) technology Rozo employed has many uses. OCR software recognized the images of the scanned pages of the reports and converted them to text which allowed them to be searched for key words and phrases. This way, the Tokyo Power Co. scientists and engineers didn’t have to painstakingly browse each page for the information they needed.

The whole project, which involved more than 10,000 pages of documents, was completed in just a few weeks. Japan was able to receive their information quickly, and with built in query capabilities to sort the data.

After the Engineering Library’s success with the effort to help Fukushima, there’s a bigger push for engineering students to be even more versed in research and IT matters.

After the Engineering Library’s success with the effort to help Fukushima, Osif said there’s a bigger push for engineering students to be even more versed in research and IT matters.

“There needs to be more cross-link classes to develop their skill set,” Osif said. “Engineers now have to have a wider range of skills.”

Osif added that double majors in engineering and information technologies, or even just a minor in IT, are beneficial to help fuel collaborations like the one between Penn State and Japan.

“This is an important example of how technology can change people’s lives,” Osif said. “We knew this was a dire straits situation in Japan — and that we could help. The scanning and OCR technology, along with a great team at Penn State, made this a seamless process.”

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit http://current.it.psu.edu/.

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Last Updated May 03, 2013