Campus researchers’ newest weapon in flood warnings: Google Maps

More than $1.3 million has been invested in the Flood Alert System since its inception.

Phil Bedient, a Rice engineering professor and director of SSPEED, said the revamped flood warning system tracks real-time traffic patterns and water levels near the local State Highway 288 bridge, a much-used evacuation route during torrential downpours or flooding.

Using Google Maps, Bedient said, makes the new tool accessible to web users, and the addition of a topographic program that uses light detection appeals to researchers who want in-depth floodplain information.

“It’s a wonderful educational tool … and students are drawn to it,” he said, adding that students from the undergraduate to the Ph.D. level have helped Rice University researchers develop FAS. “It’s very graphical, very visual, and it reinforces what they’re learning in the classroom.”

Rice researchers were going to develop new floodplain mapping software for the third version of the flood alert system, but the quick development and ubiquity of Google Maps drew their attention.

When Bedient realized the Google maps technology “was completely there”—ready for use beyond getting directions to the mall—SSPEED officials made the web-based application the centerpiece of the university’s updated alert system.

“The more we watched Google Maps explode on the horizon and in general daily use, the more we wanted to use it,” he said.

Not every update to the new alert system is visible to the average web site visitor. The latest alert system version “contains improvements under the hood, which users won’t see directly,” such as XML technology that refreshes the FAS3 web page every few minutes, said Jerry Fowler, a Rice University computer science graduate who has worked with SSPEED officials since 2001.

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