Photo: Eric Frost is the founder of San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center. Photo by KC Alfred Photography.

San Diego State University’s Immersive Visualization Center, popularly known as the Viz Lab, has transformed how responders navigate disasters. Founder Eric Frost spent years using his geographic visualization skills to help fuel companies find oil. In 2000, he began applying the techniques he developed to disaster response. Frost, a geographer, secured space at the university, computer hardware grants and a team of like-minded experts to create the Viz Lab. Soon after, he and the team began negotiating the declassification of data from various government agencies within the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and others.

The results were animated maps showing damage locations, hospitals, refugee camps and other data rarely available to responders as quickly in the past. This enabled humanitarian operations to target limited resources where need was most critical. As the Viz Lab’s credibility rose within the disaster response field, the U.S. Navy took notice and began paying the group to assist the Navy’s humanitarian efforts.

The collaboration gave Frost and other Viz Lab staff even more clout to use data from other agencies. With the imagery declassified, the Viz Lab and Navy created InRelief.org to display it for anyone interested. The group was viewed as essential during the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, 2010’s earthquakes in Haiti and Mexicali, Mexico, and San Diego’s 2007 wildfires. Emergency responders routinely visit the Viz Lab for recommendations on equipment purchases and methods for receiving data in remote areas. Although the Navy funds the lab, it operates independently, and its advice is seen as free of monetary bias. A look at the group’s founder and team of experts might spur more ideas among emergency managers about how they can collaborate with an essential organization functioning mostly behind the curtain.

Read more at Emergency Management magazine

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor