RIT researcher develops disaster response technology for UN

Virtual globe program used to analyze disaster management

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Brian Tomaszewski, assistant professor in the Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, has taken the popular Google Earth™ virtual globe program and connected it with one of the largest international workforce and service organizations—the United Nations. In particular, Tomaszewski has developed an interactive map of the entire U.N. system around the world for display in Google Earth. Development of the interactive map was a collaborative effort between RIT and the United Nations Geographic Information Working Group.

With activities ranging anywhere from peacekeeping operations to studying the effects of climate change to utilizing space-based technologies for disaster management, the U.N. has grown into a complex organization with extensive information needs.

Tomaszewski developed a computer program to take text-based information and translate it into map-based images, allowing U.N. leaders to see worldwide distribution of the U.N. system and activities. 

“The U.N. system data is available, but there was a need for translating it into a different, easier-to-use format,” he says of U. N. efforts to streamline its worldwide information. He worked for over a year on the original design process, data input and application pilot before finally releasing a beta version a few months ago. 

“I was proud to have the opportunity to participate in this project. I’m interested in geographic visualization. The rich interactivity and visual interface of Google Earth is easy to use, therefore making this kind of information more accessible to a wider range of people,” he says. “That’s the real power of Google Earth.” 

The U.N. system “layer” was not the only U.N.-related work he has done using the automated mapping algorithms. Tomaszewski spent spring quarter in Bonn, Germany, working on another geographic information science and technology project for the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs, U.N. Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response group, or UN-SPIDER. This group uses information from international satellite communication facilities to collate information about humanitarian and emergency response efforts.

“The basic research science of text transformation, sometimes called geographic information retrieval, or even geo-coding, can be applied to a lot of different application domains,” Tomaszewski explains. 

Results of his research with UN-SPIDER will eventually allow organizations besides the U.N. to have real-time, coordinated information to ensure adequate preparation prior to a disaster or in its aftermath.

For details on the project, visit