Roadmap to a Safer Society: 2019 Regional Meeting Brings NAE to Austin to Discuss Disaster Analytics

March 19, 2019
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Members of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) met at The University of Texas at Austin on March 7, 2019, to examine the growing role of data analytics in natural disasters and determine how the proper application of data could be used to develop better strategies for disaster preparation and response.

Hosted by the Cockrell School of Engineering, Dean Sharon L. Wood opened the four-hour long symposium by welcoming regional NAE members as well as UT faculty, students and visitors to the Mulva Auditorium in the school’s Engineering Education and Research Center.

“As a hub for learning and research, the Cockrell School is excited to host a discussion on how we can improve quality of life through collaboration and focused efforts on maximizing data in response to natural disasters,” Wood said. “These crucial conversations are the catalyst for change as we continue to create a safer, healthier society.”

NAE President Dan Mote Jr. echoed Wood’s sentiments: “Disaster analytics and recovery are extremely relevant topics, especially in Texas. It is our job as engineers and innovators to improve upon existing models to create a stronger, more efficient future for our society.”

Following Mote’s remarks, Bill Tierney, chair of the Department of Population Health at the Dell Medical School, presented on the importance of establishing a more streamlined health care data-tracking system, and several other UT Austin faculty members followed by detailing their research from two of Texas’ most recent catastrophic events, Hurricanes Ike and Harvey.

Gordon Wells, research associate in the Cockrell School’s Center for Space Research, emphasized the importance of generating accurate, timely information in the midst of a disaster to better support response and recovery teams, and Clint Dawson, professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, expanded upon Wells’ advocacy of quality, in-the-moment analytics by adding the need for predictive storm modeling.

“Data-driven modeling and analytics are crucial to predicting the impact of a potential storm,” Dawson said. “We must look at the potential sociological, environmental and economic impact of hurricanes as we continue to build and redevelop our cities and infrastructures.”

The symposium continued with a presentation from David Maidment, professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, that highlighted one of UT’s research gems, the STAMPEDE supercomputer, which helped forecast the flow and depth of flooding during Hurricane Harvey.

Amit Bhasin, director of UT Austin’s Center for Transportation Research, then explored how data pulled from transportation technology is transformed into practical information that enhances public safety while maximizing efficiency and mobility, and Allan Shearer, associate dean for research and technology in UT Austin’s School of Architecture, focused on increasing cities’ disaster resiliency while also maintaining an awareness of the cost to achieve that resiliency.  

Ellen Rathje, professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, closed the symposium with her presentation on the development of cloud-based tools that would support the analysis, visualization and integration of diverse data types.

“Every event provides an immense learning opportunity,” Rathje said, “but to actually learn from the event and improve our approach for the future, we must be able to integrate diverse data sets into a streamlined hub of information.”

With Texas being among the states most prone to natural disasters in both variety and severity, engineers and researchers in the region are well-positioned to capitalize on data gathered from previous natural disasters and explore innovative ways to change not only how we live, work and travel in the present but also how we can better prepare for the future.