Isaac Brewer: From music to map to emergency preparedness

September 25, 2008

In a career that began with an early interest in music then moved to mapping and visualization, it is fitting that Isaac Brewer finds his current academic home in IST working on security and emergency preparedness issues.

Remarking on a scholarly community that melds legal scholars, business experts, sociologists, psychologists and others, Brewer, a research associate and faculty member, said, "It's that real renaissance approach to both bringing faculty together and then to bringing students together in an educational context that keeps me interested and makes me want to get up in the morning."

A teacher of both information sciences and technology (IST) and security and risk analysis classes, Brewer appreciates a student body that not only reflects technical knowledge, but a feel for social issues and information as well.

"The most interesting thing is when you put a group of people with these different areas of expertise and interests together and give them a problem that they can work," he said. "It's amazing to see the different strategies they employ to either design new technology or solve a problem."

Brewer, who is associated with IST's Center for Network-centric Cognition and Information Fusion (NC2IF) and its new Extreme Events Lab, comes from a family whose artistic influences helped lead him to a minor in music at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, where he performed on cello and in musical theater. His 1997 bachelor’s degree was in geography, a bachelor of art followed by a master of science degree in the same field from Oregon State University in 1999. Maps, Brewer said, appealed to his artistic side and more.

"I always had an intrinsic desire to, one, travel, and, two, pore over maps," he explained. "So, it followed on naturally that I would want to design better ones. That evolved from just designing paper-based maps all the way through to advanced systems."

Finishing up at Oregon State, Brewer was attracted to Penn State's highly-regarded Department of Geography where Professor Alan MacEachren was developing the GeoVISTA Center, which today includes several IST faculty associates. Then, as now, the center was a focus for cutting-edge research on collaboration and the design of map-based visualization systems to support decision making and work.

Pursuing a doctoral degree in Geography, Brewer's dissertation, "Understanding the use of Geospatial Information and Technologies in Crisis Management," drew on the experience of preparedness officials in the Carolinas and Florida who've dealt with hurricanes. The paper also touched on responses to other crises such as wild fires, outbreaks of hoof and mouth disease, terrorist events and nuclear meltdowns.

"Each of those disasters has a different kind of signature that you respond to," Brewer said. And, from each, different lessons are learned.

Along the way, he wrote a white paper which examined the potential impact the right-front quadrant of a hurricane could have versus the left-front quadrant. The region he chose for his 2001 examination was one of two regarded as America’s most vulnerable, New Orleans. Four years later, in August 2005, that city became ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. Brewer's results foresaw the potential for difficulty in evacuating the poor and homeless, as well as the inability of local officials to communicate with one another.

He said much has been learned over the past eight to nine years in disaster preparedness. Smarter plans, procedures and policies have come into force, some with significant positive impacts. With each new catastrophe — like this year's Iowa floods and the recent southern California wildfires — come new, hard-won lessons.

Brewer’s research now focuses more on cyber-security and on the work of the intelligence community and how that integrates with emergency response. His teaching duties are broad, this fall including an honors section of the introductory course SRA 111 and SRA 231 "Decision Theory and Analysis." In the spring, he will teach IST 110 and IST 331 "Organization and Design of Information Systems: User and System Principles."

Like his NC2IF colleagues, Brewer strives to inject the problems and projects he assigns students with relevance.

"We bring in real-world situations," he said, "whether it is an event on campus, such as a shooting that brings to light things that have happened at another university, or whether it’s with our large stadium and we’re studying evacuations and the modeling of that, or whether we're working on intelligence analysis for finding terrorist plots."

"It's the real-world problems in a problem-based learning context that we take into the classroom that gets them excited, that they see on TV, that they recognize in the news, and they can tackle within the context of their own studies."



  • IST Research Associate Isaac Brewer

    IMAGE: Charlie DuBois

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010