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Supercomputing experts guide Myanmar relief efforts

June 06, 2008

ASU is using its supercomputing capabilities to aid humanitarian organizations attempting to provide disaster relief to victims of Cyclone Nargis that hit the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar May 2.

ASU’s High Performance Computing Initiative (HPCI), a part of the School of Computing and Informatics in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, has established a Web site to provide aid organizations with up-to-date satellite images of conditions on the ground in Myanmar.

“The people planning relief efforts can use this data to determine if and how aid workers can gain access to areas where victims are,” says HPCI director Dan Stanzione. “The imagery is sharp enough so that they could determine if aircraft could land in an area, if roads remain open or are blocked by debris or flooding, and if heavy equipment is needed to open those roads.”

Recent reports estimate more than 130,000 people dead or missing in Myanmar as a result of the cyclone, with close to 2.5 million struggling to survive in the hardest-hit areas of the country.

HPCI is providing highly detailed “geospatial visualization” of Myanmar, using digital imagery provided by the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency satellites, says Perry Miller, HPCI’s visualization director.

It is not typically data that the U.S. government makes widely available, but an exception is being made to support disaster relief, Miller says.

HPCI’s visualization team has developed a three-dimensional geospatial viewer called “Minerva” that allows for large, geo-referenced images to be loaded onto a computer. Users can zoom in to find areas damaged by the cyclone, then take “screenshots” that are posted to the Internet for humanitarian aid workers to use.

The Web site can be found online at

“This is now ‘open-source’ data, which means people and aid groups are free to download it, and it can be formatted and modified for their particular purposes,” says Joseph Adams, an academic associate at ASU’s Biodesign Institute who is involved in geospatial data visualization research. “It gives the aid planners a portal through which they can get information they need to assess the situation (in Myanmar).”

The data is being gathered and processed by a team from HPCI and the Biodesign Institute.

“There’s a network of people within the supercomputing community and the humanitarian organizations through which the relief groups will become aware of what ASU is making available to them,” Adams says.

The project is an example of what computing experts and others at ASU hope to be doing on a larger scale someday.

“We think ASU can put together the resources to become a unique repository of this kind of geospatial data that will make humanitarian efforts more effective,” says Kevin Baugh, an industry and government research liaison for the Biodesign Institute.

Baugh and others envision an ASU-led consortium of other universities, along with international and philanthropic organizations, partnering to help prepare crisis response efforts worldwide.

“The goal would be to understand when, where and how to employ humanitarian aid resources to maximize their effectiveness,” Baugh says.
ASU’s high-performance computing technology can provide the “cutting-edge analysis tools” to support such a consortium, he says.

Baugh foresees the university’s expertise in computing, sustainability, biotechnology and microelectronics being combined to provide “the ability to obtain real-world data in real-time so that it can be integrated into the decision-making processes of humanitarian service providers.”