Satellite Data Help Haiti Rebuild after Earthquake

Posted: June 7, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: June 7, 2010 at 7:53 am

By Dave Andrews

Sean Gorman, Mason alumnus and CEO of FortiusOne. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Nearly five months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the country is still in the beginning stages of rebuilding.

But with the advent of new satellite technologies and data collection methods, research companies are helping to return life in Haiti back to normal.

One such company, FortiusOne Inc., was founded by Mason public policy experts in 2005.

As a humanitarian gesture immediately after the quake, the Arlington-based data analysis and visual intelligence firm went to work on collecting geographical and population data to feed into its public program, GeoCommons Community.

FortiusOne was then able to easily revise and share the updated information with local officials to improve relief efforts.

“We were working directly with the Haitian government to collect data and put it in a common depository that could be accessed by everyone,” says Sean Gorman, PhD Public Policy ’04 and CEO of FortiusOne.

“We blended traditional sources of GIS information, like satellites, with a great deal of crowd source information received from people on the ground.”

Gorman and his team used satellite imaging to find streets and buildings, while volunteers on the ground identified the locations. The data were posted to the web, helping people navigate the rough terrain. Photo courtesy of Sean Gorman

With limited means of communication after the quake, data analysts were heavily reliant on text messaging. Gorman’s team gathered tens of thousands of text messages that gave them status updates on road closures, buildings and hospitals, as well as the status of food and water supplies.

To obtain updated geospatial information about Haiti, FortiusOne worked with 20 different organizations, all of which were working toward the same goal of easing the pain of the suffering country.

“Before the earthquake, Haiti was pretty much a blank map with little to no updated street data,” Gorman says. “Basically, we created a bigger depository of data, and because it was available for everyone to use, it helped solve a variety of problems in a time of crisis.”

The analysts used satellite imaging to find streets and buildings, while organized groups of volunteers on the ground identified those locations to update the map. All of the information was posted to the web, making it more accessible to multiple groups and helping people better navigate the rough terrain.

After all of the data were gathered, it was combined into a common framework and saved onto thumb drives that FortiusOne sent to Haiti. The World Bank distributed those thumb drives to the Haitian government, and the information is still being used as a vital baseline during reconstruction.

FortiusOne did not generate revenue as a result of its preliminary mapping work in Haiti. The information is still free to the public.

FortiusOne continues to have close ties with Mason. Gorman, who did his postdoctoral research at Mason, is joined by other professors who continue to work at the university but also support FortiusOne’s initiatives.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu