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The University of Alabama

Public to Use UA Co-Developed Network to Document Oil-Spill Fallout

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Think of how easy it has become to take out your mobile smartphone and capture important photos in just seconds. Now, through the work of a University of Alabama computer scientist and his colleagues, you can utilize that technology to help scientists and researchers build a database of critical images during a natural disaster or crisis.

Dr. Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant of $65,000 to develop a system that allows capturing of emergency response issues by allowing average citizens to use their cell phones to collect data. The data would be uploaded to a coordinated website to help assist in understanding the effect of the disaster.

Traditional applications for monitoring disasters have relied on specialized, expensive hardware and software platforms to capture, aggregate and disseminate information on affected areas, such as the Gulf Region during the recent oil spill. Current science and technology lacks a rapid and dependable integration system of computing and communication systems into natural and engineered physical systems.

“This is a critical opportunity for us to help in relief efforts by deploying cutting-edge cyber-physical systems research directly in the field enabling community members to contribute to the body of science by direct recording of events and ecological impacts on the Gulf oil spill, such as fish and bird deaths and oil sightings,” said Gray.

Although the project is initially focused on the Gulf spill, the framework of the developed technology can be rapidly adapted to handle future emergency situations.

Gray is collaborating with researchers who received similar Rapid Response Research grants. Dr. Jules White, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, Dr. Aniruddha Gokhale, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Douglas C. Schmidt, chief technology officer at the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon, are working jointly with Gray on this project.

UA students involved in the project include Prateek Bahri, a doctoral student in computer science, and Robert Smyly, a sophomore majoring in computer science from Mountain Brook.

The group is also working with Gulf area K-12 schools to integrate disaster and ecology monitoring activities into their curricula. Bayside Academy, a private school along the Gulf Coast, will participate with the research. Bayside students will assist in capturing images throughout the school year as part of their science classes.

Several Bayside students will attend computer science summer camps at UA to learn about developing Android applications in Java. Patrick McTaggart, a science teacher at Bayside, is coordinating the students’ activities.

“By capitalizing on social networking, this idea utilizes citizen science where a group of citizens can participate by providing data in a manner that would be impossible to capture by a small team of individual responders,” explained Gray.

It is expected that project results will enable future efforts to create a disaster response system that can scale to thousands of users and operate effectively in life-critical situations with scarce network and computing resources.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 2,700 students and more than 100 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA TodayAll-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater scholars, Hollings scholars and Portz scholars.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.