This past week at Camp Roberts has been incredible. All of the groups present did an amazing work, and we got to test InSTEDD's GeoChat in a completely different scenario and integrate it with most of the other applications present to come up with a full cross-systems solution for distasters related scenarios.

First challenge was the actual deployment of GeoChat. Since we were looking forward to develop several mashups on the fly, we took with us a separate version of the server so we could tweak it as much as needed for the sake of the exercise without modifying the already running production server (which, by the way, you are all welcome to use). We would also be deploying a local gateway, which is nothing more than a simple client installed in a laptop connected to a cell phone that relays messages from and to the server, as the US shared gateway was in use at the production server. The huge problem was we did not get any signal on the base.

Fortunately, Brian and his people from HFN set up a Forward Operating Base on top of a hill which did get good cellphone coverage, and using WiMax antennas they managed to forward network access for us into the base. So we had a local instance of a GeoChat server up and running with its own local gateway.

Among the organizations in the exercise was Google, with their mapping technologies. They made an amazing job processing a detailed set of imagery using a Google Earth Fusion Server (that nearly made the whole trailer we were in tremble when it was turned on) and providing all of the others parties with access to a Google Earth Enterprise server which served these tiles.

The processing of all of the available NGA imagery that was available took the server almost an entire night, but the results were truly spectacular (check the link, video included!). I regret not having a screenshot of the data actually displayed inside GeoChat, as the high level resolution yielded a great visualization.

The first ones to make excellent use of this imagery were the people from OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers. The former is a collaborative initiative for mapping, the latter consists in printing maps based on OSM and having them scanned back to generate input in the system. Within a few hours, they managed to generate transparent layers that, being overlaid on top of the GEE imagery, produced some awesome results: OSM data printed together with detailed images of all around the place.

Since these maps provided an excellent reference for the camp we were in, we decided to integrate them into GeoChat as a new geo reference system. Therefore, whenever a new walking paper was printed, a post was made to our server with the details of the map and an ID. After that, anyone could indicate their position using a simple grid reference printed on top of the map. By sending #map MAP1 GeoChat associated MAP1 to the current user as the current walking paper, and with grid A3 54 it was possible to make a location update in the system, without needing a GPS to get the latitude and longitude coordinates, as the translation was made automatically on the server. We will be looking forward to have these features and others migrated to the main code trunk as we polish them up for public use.

As walking papers works by using a scanner to input annotations back into the OSM server, and we were on a disaster response scenario, we wanted GeoChat to serve as a channel to report alerts on real time that could be displayed on OSM, without needing for a user to go back to base and have his or her map scanned. Therefore we created a list of tags that would trigger a postback to OSM whenever a message containing any of them entered GeoChat:

minefield fire flood bridgeout bridgeup roadout roadup supplydrop riot looting kitfox hospital clinic aid sewage gasleak shelter fighting safezone pollingsite landslide outbreak government gov emergency camp ngo

Personally I have to thank Mikel for the huge help he gave us in making the integration possible. He also has an excellent recap of the event on four consecutive blog posts.

Sahana was also there with their disaster management system, looking forward to pull data from most systems. So we coded a quick GeoRSS feed for them to consume, and by the end of the exercise Sahana was showing GeoChat messages on map along with many other layers. The visualization worked great.

The people from Development Seed focused on developing an elections monitoring system for Todd Huffman who was looking forward to test and use all of the toys we created during the week. Having the system pull imagery from the GEE server added even more value. More info on Eric's blog.

We also got some great presentations by the people of TerraPan with their low cost UAVs, by Patrick Meier who represented Harvard's humanitarian initiative, and many more.

Overall it was an excellent week, full of great people with great ideas only waiting to be implemented. The collaboration and integration produced during these few days was invaluable, and we all have a lot of work to set everything up for the next iteration of RELIEF.

(here is a link to my photo album and to Eric's one with pictures of the event)