Penn State student researchers learning to master disasters with high-tech tools

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A group of Penn State undergraduate researchers are using the University Park campus as a proving ground to break in technology that may one day help future emergency workers save lives through better disaster response.

The student researchers are currently testing an open-source platform that combines geolocation and mobile technology with social media and open-source software to efficiently coordinate responses to disasters and security problems, according to Jake Graham, professor of practice in information sciences and technology. He added that large scale campus events — like football games and THON — give the students a chance to run the technology in situations that would be nearly impossible to simulate.

"This is powerful technology, but to really find out what its capabilities are, you can't just wait for a tornado to hit a testing site, you need large areas and huge crowds to test it," said Graham. "At Penn State, we have 100,000 people spread out around a big stadium, and we also have students who can learn to use the technology and understand the goals of the mission."

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) originally released two open-source technology applications to aid in disaster response, called GeoQ and MAGE, to GitHub, an open-source software site. The goal was to create a community of open-source users and coders to promote readiness, response and recovery efforts worldwide, according to the researchers.

GeoQ Phone App

The smart phone application used by the GeoQ data collection team.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Graham and about 25 students in his Red Cell Analytics Lab have used the technology at two Penn State football games, and will continue to hone the skills and techniques they used in those operations as they conduct tests in campus- and community-wide events in spring and summer of 2017, including THON in February and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in July. Students in the Red Cell Lab — a reference to military teams, often called "red cells," who adopt tactics of adversaries to test military effectiveness — are trained to recognize security threats, analyze disaster responses and use critical thinking to evaluate and manage threats.

During the exercises, team members take a mobile app — MAGE — into the field to gather and instantly report data back to team members working as analysts. That information is then relayed back to GeoQ, which can help emergency managers better assess, visualize and direct help.

 "Unless you've been on the scene of a disaster, it's probably hard to imagine just how chaotic and fluid things are," said Graham. "Allowing teams to instantly gather and report back data to analysts gives the responders a chance to better pinpoint needs and reposition assets and personnel to those areas."

The Red Cell student researchers are gaining invaluable experience during the training sessions. Several are interested in careers where they may be called on to use GeoQ or similar technologies, said Graham.

"Many of these student researchers are aiming at careers where they will be using tools like this," added Graham. "This gives us a chance to engage the student researcher in the application of a cutting-edge tool that is being introduced by our federal sponsor."

The students say they appreciate the real-world experience, regardless of their future careers.

"I think that everyone that is working on this project has an interest in doing some sort of analysis for the government whether that's in an agency, or another organization, and that's what drew a lot of the people to the project," says Leona Kretzu, a senior in security and risk analysis. "But, you can also see how this will really help people, and that makes this a rewarding project."

The project is also providing feedback about the technology, according to team member Nichole Jenkins, a recent graduate in security and risk analysis.

"One thing we noticed was that when you had a lot of incidents in a certain area, it became very difficult to understand on a map," said Jenkins. "The data became stacked up. We wondered: Could we make this information three-dimensional to give the analysts a real sense of what was going on?"

As the Red Cell Lab students encountered problems and issues, they documented these for the GeoQ software developers to address.

"Some issues the team is working on and addressing on their own," said Nick Giacobe, research associate and lecturer in information sciences and technology. "Others are being submitted to the community of open-source developers. Our goal is to identify the workforce-related issues so that emergency managers across the country are more likely to use it."

Giacobe added that the issues include software modifications, training materials and documentation.

"It can sometimes be difficult to even install and configure a product like GeoQ," said Giacobe. "The easier we make it, the more likely it will be used."

Colonel Jake Graham

Colonel Jake Graham, professor of practice in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology, leads the GeoQ data collection and research team.

Image: Patrick Mansell

The team is using the experience they gain during the tests to hone their own disaster scenario project.

"Our spring project is a tornado experiment, with the eventual goal to present that to our federal sponsor," said Red Cell Lab member Chris Gulla, a recent graduate in security and risk analysis. "The scenario we will look at is if a tornado touches down on campus, how can we use GeoQ to help track the tornado and solve problems? Hopefully, we can report back and tell them how helpful GeoQ actually was."

Viewing the incidents also gave the team an idea of where potential problem areas might crop up during emergencies on campus. For example, during football games at Beaver Stadium the team noticed high-traffic areas where there could be issues if the stadium needed to be evacuated quickly. The team reported this back to University emergency management.

Crowdsourcing is another element that expands the reach of GeoQ. By sending out teams to gather information and tapping into social media streams, such as Twitter, emergency personnel may be able to analyze larger disaster areas simultaneously.

Red Cell is teaming up with Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) on the project. ARL is helping to support the planned security events, leading the day-to-day project and programmatic tasks, as well as coordinating with other partners. In addition, ARL helps out as technology experts.

According to ARL researchers on the project, because disaster scenes are complex and always changing, testing and understanding GeoQ's workflow could help emergency officials better manage information and save lives.

"In a disaster there are multiple agencies involved – fire, police, EMS, traffic control and others," said David Walrath, research and development engineer. "This technology provides a way for everyone to have a common picture. What the Red Cell students are helping to do is offering feedback on the workflow, to improve the processes so that all of those agencies can be on the same page at the same time."

Graham said during the summer the team will be able to stretch the area of operation, during exercises at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

"It does give the students an idea of the scope of some disasters," said Graham. "This is still a small confined area, imagine if the disaster happened over a region, or an entire state, you would literally need an army to pull it off. In this case, the Red Cell Lab is the GeoQ army."

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Last Updated February 15, 2017