By Robin Herron
One of the huge video monitors in Anthony Stefanidis’s lab displays a computer model of Mason’s Fairfax Campus rendered in Google Earth. All the buildings are easily recognizable and drawn to scale. Every few seconds, the model spins to show another perspective of the campus.
“This is practically a precise three-dimensional map,” says Stefanidis, director of Mason’s Center for Geospatial Intelligence. “It describes what the buildings look like, and the general public can access that through Google Earth. But despite its visual appeal, this representation is static.”
Stefanidis’s group plans to enhance the map by adding complementary information and the “spatiotemporal aspect.” The map could become a user interface and provide access to different bits of existing information. For example, one could click on a building and see what events were taking place there. Stefanidis also sees the potential for safety and security applications. “By linking with class schedules and rosters, the university could have a precise list of all students present in a building in the case of an emergency.”
He adds that video fed through cameras around campus could be overlaid on the model to animate it by showing people’s movement at a given instance or movement patterns over time—information that could be useful for planning.
The campus map project, which resulted from a request by Mason’s Facilities unit, began as a service to the university but actually laid the groundwork for a proposal that recently won Stefanidis and Matt Rice, assistant professor of geography and geoinformation science, and Jana Kosecka, associate professor of computer science, a competitive grant from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Another of Stefanidis’s current grants is from Draper Laboratory, a prestigious independent research and development institution. For this project, he also relies heavily on distributed video information but is considering adding sensor data that can be used, for example, to monitor the presence of pollutants in the atmosphere and where they are moving, in collaboration with assistant professor Guido Cervone.
Stefanidis’s work has evolved from simply looking at buildings and landscapes to incorporating the human activity element of geospatial intelligence. To do this, he has partnered with colleagues in Mason’s Computer Science Department, who use video processing to capture movement, and researchers in Mason’s Center for Social Complexity, who model social networks.
“By linking all these pieces of information, we can make valuable observations relating to, and contributing toward, the automatic capturing of ‘human terrain,’” Stefanidis says. “This is probably one of the prominent research themes that will be emerging in the future in our field. It is the evolution of geoinformatics to be addressing much more dynamic phenomena.”
Peggy Agouris, his wife and partner in science, says she is more traditional when explaining her research. Her expertise is centered on remote sensing; more specifically on automating geospatial information extraction from high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery.
She has developed techniques to automatically take in live satellite images and compare them with existing geographic information systems databases. For example, in a war zone, previously collected data can be compared with current visual data to see whether and how roads or buildings have changed, especially after heavy destruction. The data can then be quickly relayed to troops on the ground, so they can update their records.
“Embedding our automated approaches in a dynamic environment, with data collection and information extraction integrated in it, and taking into account the ongoing evolution of sensing, visualization, and communication devices, not only allow us to observe events but also incorporate in real time what is actually happening in a way that can provide immediate solutions. This is what we are shooting for,” says Agouris, who directs Mason’s Center for Earth Observing and Space Research and chairs the Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science.
The two Greek natives met as undergraduates, married, and earned PhDs in digital image analysis from Ohio State University. They both worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Maine before joining Mason in 2007.
The scientists have worked together and separately on papers and research sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NGA, NASA, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Geological Survey, BAE Systems, and the CIA, among others.
While they each have their own areas of expertise, the excitement they feel about their field and the potential it offers is the same.
“We feel very fortunate because the things we do are extremely suitable to be linked with the other things the university is doing,” says Stefanidis, who notes that Mason’s location near the nation’s capital, as well as the faculty’s expertise, ideally position the university to be a leader in geointelligence.
Agouris sees the field as rapidly developing. “For years, we were limited in terms of the applications of our work, but now it’s unlimited.”
Stefanidis adds, “We are working on things now that people will be using in a few years.”