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Daniel Irwin: Using NASA technology to solve disaster, environmental conditions

From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, January 18, 2010; 12:00 PM

Daniel Irwin is a research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), but unlike colleagues involved in interplanetary exploration, his work is focused on Earth.

Irwin heads a NASA program known as SERVIR. Using satellite technology, SERVIR helps officials in Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa understand and respond to natural disasters, combat environmental problems, improve agricultural practices and monitor air quality.

Irwin describes his program -- which means "to serve" in Spanish -- as "a space-to-village relationship" that employs "eyes in the sky and uses it for societal benefit."

"When people think of NASA, they think of Mars Exploration Rovers or finding water on the moon, but a big part of our mission is to study earth from space, to advance scientific understanding and meet societal needs," Irwin said.

SERVIR team members gather and process satellite data, combine it with ground observations, analyze results and quickly pass along the resulting information to assist scientists, educators and foreign government leaders.

The SERVIR team is currently assisting the rescue effort in Haiti, using NASA and commercial satellite data to create maps of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. The data pinpoints the building-by-building damage caused by last week's massive earthquake.

"We are providing a bird's eye view of the heavily damaged areas, and making that information available to the response teams," Irwin said.

In November, Hurricane Ida brought heavy rains that triggered flooding and mudslides in El Salvador, killing almost 200 people, leaving thousands homeless and causing more than $150 million in damage. The NASA satellite images provided by SERVIR mapped the mud flow and assisted officials in understanding the full extent of the hurricane's damage and how it could be avoided in the event of future disasters.

That same month, a major algae bloom spread across Lake Atitlan, a picturesque Guatemalan lake surrounded by steep volcanoes and Mayan settlements. NASA's satellite images showed the scope of the contamination and helped mobilize government action to begin dealing with the pollution.

In 2006, when severe weather caused flooding and landslides in Panama, the SERVIR team provided rain forecasts and damage projections, which prompted life-saving evacuations. In 2007, the system was utilized to assess the damage and chart six different disasters including forest fires in Belize and flooding in Mexico due to Hurricane Dean.

Irwin, a native of Rockville, Md., created the SERVIR program in 2005 and today manages the operation from the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. SERVIR has a supercomputer center in Panama City, Panama, that integrates data from a variety of sources and displays real time mapping. The program recently opened a regional office in Nairobi, Kenya, as well.

"My vision is to create a sustained and strengthened capacity of the people in the countries where we work," Irwin said.

Although NASA leads SERVIR, the U.S. Agency for International Development plays a key role in working with the various countries to use the data to bring about positive change. The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey also offer indirect support to the program.

Woody Turner, Irwin's boss at NASA's headquarters in Washington, said his colleague brings "passion and high energy" to the job and an unwavering commitment to help people in Central America and other developing regions of the world. He praises Irwin, a fluent Spanish speaker, for engaging countries around the world and giving them a major role and stake in the entire enterprise.

"Government sometimes gets a bad name, but government is made up of people, and there is no better example than Dan Irwin of someone who uses his position in government to help other people and to make a real difference," Turner said. "Individuals do matter. Even with all of NASA's technical capabilities, this program never would have come together without Dan."

Last year, Irwin had the opportunity to address the leaders of the Central American nations about climate change, showing them satellite data and images of deforestation in the region and illustrating the environmental problems those countries are facing.

"When I travel to Central America or Africa and meet with university professors, nonprofit organizations and government agencies, I get incredible feedback on how the NASA data has improved their decision- making, whether it involves deforestation, how natural disasters are affecting their countries or the research and modeling we have provided on air quality," Irwin said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work and go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal.

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