Sometimes it’s all about timing: Intel’s unplanned foray into firefighting in California

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While wildfires raging in California riveted attention spans this week, a small, fortunately-timed Intel technology donation is quietly, and quite unexpectedly, doing its part to help emergency and humanitarian response teams save lives and property.

Now, I don’ t want to make our contribution sound any bigger than it actually is. After all, we made the donation with other purposes in mind. But according to one intensely thankful Eric Frost, Director of San Diego State University’s Visualization Center (Viz Center), Intel’s contribution is making a difference. In Frost’s words: “Without [the donation], we would have been really struggling generally. The reality of having machines like this is really impressive. The speed and capability these machines deliver to immediately respond and integrate [information] so well is so important.”

That quote begs lots of questions, so let me provide some answers.

Earlier this year, shortly after Intel unveiled its quad core PC server line up, Intel donated two of its older dual core servers to SDSU’s Viz Center. In a nutshell, the center uses its impressive relationship network (which includes the likes of NASA, GOOGLE.ORG and Larry Smarr’s Calit2 ) to access massive quantities of geo-spatial, geological and atmospheric data that is out there in the world sitting on hard drives, tapes and other storage media and going unused. Then it processes those data to produce visual mashups, called visualizations, that reveal information-rich relationships between data sets that previously weren’t visible when a person is analyzing a single data set at a time. The Viz Center served up visualizations just like these to support both the Katrina disaster and the Tsunami disaster in Asia. Relief organizations responding to those emergencies used the imagery to efficiently deploy relief resources.

Problem is, these visualizations are super-sized: several tens of teraflops in size per image. Prior to the dual core contribution, processing a single image required days. But with Intel inside, the same process happens in near real time.

Our original intention was to enhance future humanitarian efforts in emerging markets as well as bring SDSU’s capability to support our future Community Solutions projects. That the servers are contributing value so soon is an outcome totally unexpected but worthy of note.

Dual core processing power according to Frost is helping map data being captured by both NASA Modis satellites passing over the fires twice a day and hyperspectral (don’t ask me, I don’t know what it means) data captured by NASA’s high tech fire fighter Predator, which is an unmanned aerial vehicle just like those buzzing around in Iraq but used for fire fighting.

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The powerful, efficient dual core servers are making light work of the detail-rich, very large images and delivering them to Emergency Operation Center commanders on the front lines who are using them to supplement their fire fighting and humanitarian relief plans. The picture at left is a MODIS shot of the area with mapping overlays (Credit: NASA ans the SDSU Geography Dept.). See the full suite of images here.

“We’re helping connect people with the [response] capabilities and the people that have the needs through the medium of computing and humanitarian outreach with our GIS imaging.” Frost explains.

This imaging is improving decision making on the front lines. Frost said the images are helping people get a bigger picture of what’s going on relative to smoke plume direction and fire location. For example, officials in Tijuana, Mexico, according to Frost, feared the fires were spreading into their country because a lot of smoke was blowing over the border. But the Viz Center imagery, which can be produced in a variety of spectra, pinpointed the exact location of each fire line.

“Tijuana was getting lots of smoke,” Frost said. “But very little fire. With our imagery we were able to confirm that, which allowed them to not fly blind.”

The same imagery helped decision making around evac center citing.

“The smoke is covering everything,” Frost said. “So it is sometimes hard to make decisions. You can’t tell where the fire is or isn’t. In one case [the city of] Del Mar was designated as a major evac center, but it was down wind [of the fire] and getting all the smoke coming off the flames. This was a very very bad place to be for an evac center.”

The imagery clearly showed the best place to site evac centers was north of the fires, not west as originally planned, because the winds were blowing everything westward. Why they couldn’t have seen this by simple observation is beyond me, but hey, I’m not down there.

The public also is using Viz Center imagery to monitor and observe the emergency as it unfolds. The Intel machines are getting “…many hundreds of thousands” of hits per day says Frost, thanks to the media such as San Diego’s KPBS linking its radio station website to the servers. In fact, Frost said traffic to the imagery is so heavy it would have overwhelmed the servers the Intel quad core machines replaced.

That the dual core servers are supporting the emergency response is a happy, fortunate by-product of a relationship we hope to build between Intel and SDSU. We want to see the servers used to unlock the enormous value buried in all that stored data sitting around waiting to be discovered. In the meantime, the results we’re getting from doing our small part to help with California’s wildfires ensures that at least these dual core machines themselves are being put to good use.

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