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Tuesday, November 22, 2005 | As wildfires spread across San Diego two years ago, Ming-Hsiang Tsou decided the city needed help.

“I remember the first few days there was no information available on the location of the fires. I remember the television reporters using the Thomas Guide for maps. I was so frustrated,” the San Diego State University professor said.

Tsou donned a protective mask, went to the closed SDSU campus, started up his own Internet server and began generating online maps to illustrate and pinpoint fire hot-spots and perimeters. His Web site was updated every six or seven hours and received up to 8,000 visits a day.

“I received e-mails from all over, one from an SDSU parent in New York who had no idea where the fires were and if their student was safe.”

More than two years later, Tsou’s work in Geographical Information Science, which includes cartography and Internet mapping, is rapidly becoming a popular field of study and a promising vocation.

And SDSU’s effort to increase its role in research studies can only mean more projects for Tsou.

He is currently engaged in four research projects, ranging from work with NASA to the city of San Diego.

With NASA, Tsou is working on the Reason Project, a collaboration with the U.S. Border Patrol that seeks to get agents using new technologies, such as Web-based mapping systems and Global Position Systems.

The access to information won’t be limited to border patrol; the idea is to share the information provided across different agencies.

“We want to create … a complete database, available online, so if there were an emergency in San Diego, border patrol agents, police and firefighters could go to a specific Web site to see what the city needs,” Tsou, winner of the 2004 Outstanding Faculty Award at SDSU, said.

“Our project demonstrates homeland security,” said Tsou. “If it succeeds in San Diego, it can be used as a model nationwide.”

SDSU research on the San Diego level is displayed in the San Diego Common Grounds Project.

The project uses Web-based Internet mapping to monitor our water quality in the San Diego region. Agencies such as private environmental consulting companies actually go into the field and collect water sample data, which is entered into the database and the Common Ground Web site.

“Everyone in the city can go to our Web site and monitor the quality of their water,” says Tsou. “This is a very good tool.”

A third research project Tsou is involved in focuses on the future of GIS and is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Geo-spatial technology is a very promising field and in the next few years we’re going to need a trained labor force. At this point we are not training enough people to meet the expected demand,” he said.

Tsou’s own interest in GIS began when he was an undergraduate at National Taiwan University.

Tsou became fascinated with the subject and went on to get his Master’s at SUNY-Buffalo, one of three national centers for GIS systems.

He became involved with Internet mapping while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Colorado. He then moved to San Diego with his wife, who was his English teacher back in Taiwan. They have three children.

He said that land-mapping projects popularized by Google Earth and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth show that the technology isn’t just a specialized field.

“You no longer have a small area of technology, it’s becoming mainstream, the information and the technology of the future,” he said.

Tsou said he expects that GI systems will be paired with other technologies to create powerful alliances in the future.

“Think about it: you walk down the street, and maybe your cell phone will have a pop-up advertisement saying there’s a coffee bar down the street from where you are, and offer a coupon,” he said.

Please contact Molly Bettiga directly at

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