Videogame Technology Helps With Disaster Planning
By Kristen Philipkoski 12 hours ago
Muttshack's David Friedman used Depiction to create this map, which he then used to coordinate animal rescue efforts during hurricane Gustav.
Thanks to disaster-simulation software inspired by videogames, David Friedman has a new family member: Jordan, a yellow Labrador retriever puppy. The software helped emergency workers in Louisiana rescue Jordan -- and 15,000 other stranded pets -- during Hurricane Gustav.
"Going by boat across a flooded field and parking lot, I saw this little yellow thing in a tree floating in the river," Friedman said, a disaster-response coordinator with animal-rescue organization Muttshack. "It was this little yellow puppy."
Volunteers like Friedman patched together an escape route for the animals using a disaster-preparedness simulator called Depiction. Friedman combined his amateur radio skills with simulations he had already created of the Baton Rouge area to map open roads, even without an internet connection. Volunteers picked up animals at 19 locations and coordinated 133 tractor trailers.
It's just one example of how disaster-modeling software can help responders create rescue plans in real time. During Katrina, some emergency workers used Google Earth Pro to map evacuation routes. Others have used MapPoint and XMap in crises.
But according to emergency workers, Depiction is the cheapest ($90, compared to $1,000 and up for other systems) and easiest to customize with local logistical information. The software can integrate aerial images from Google Earth or other sources, spreadsheet data, infrastructure maps and river-depth charts.
Depiction can be used to plan for disasters ahead of time, but it's also useful for collecting and organizing data during a crisis. Citizens can e-mail reports from the field, and emergency workers can feed other data directly into the software to find alternative routes when downed power lines, flood waters or landslides block roads.
"Because it has all these layers of data, with one program I can see all of my resources at once," said Friedman, a longtime emergency volunteer.
It's no coincidence that the software's birds-eye view sounds like something straight out of a computer-strategy game. Depiction founder Mike Geersten hails from Microsoft's games unit, where he was a product planner for Flight Simulator and later train sims.
When government agencies started asking to use Microsoft's simulation platform to depict real-life situations, Geersten saw a business opportunity. But getting the business plan approved within Microsoft was a bureaucratic challenge, so he set out on his own in 2005. He raised $1.5 million in angel funding and has gathered a staff of 14.
Geersten has seen his platform technology used in a variety of ways, and has heard suggestions for more. Depiction has helped Red Cross volunteers evacuate victims and get supplies and rescue teams to rural areas. It has tracked flooding along the Snohomish River. A potential investor imagined it could simulate salmon runs in the San Francisco Bay Area, which are at their lowest level in decades. In the video below, Depiction is used to predict the effect of rising sea levels on Manhattan.
Mike Dinn, a real estate consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio, believes Depiction will help mitigate the real estate crisis. By plugging in census, employment and other data, he's using Depiction to help banks decide what to do about newly acquired large properties. The software helps him guide developers trying to choose the best building locations.
"Depiction plus my background allows my clients for the first time to see like radar what these market positions are," Dinn said.