Stony Brook Community Pioneers Technology-Based Response to Puerto Rico Crisis

“In theory I would be on a plane heading for Puerto Rico, but I am a graduate student without much money — so I am glad to be helping the Red Cross with their relief efforts any way I can,” said Ian Bonnell ’16.

Bonnell, who is enrolled in the five-year Master’s program in mechanical engineering at Stony Brook, spoke as he documented the locations of storm-ravaged buildings in the hurricane-stricken U.S. territory. He was one of nearly 80 Stony Brook students, faculty and staff participating in an innovative initiative called “Disaster Relief Map-A-Thon: Puerto Rico.”

“It’s great that we can have an impact on the world from a remote location,” said Shafeek Fazal, associate dean for Library Technology, Discovery, and Digital Services.


Sung-Gheel Jang leads volunteers through the Disaster Relief Map-A-Thon process.

Stony Brook is the first SUNY school to stage this type of technology-based response to a crisis, according to Chris Sellers, director, Center for the Study of Inequality and Social Justice and Policy. He and Sung-Gheel Jang, a lecturer and faculty director of the Geospatial Center, which offers Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing related services for Stony Brook students, faculty, research and the surrounding community, read an article in The New York Times about similar efforts at Columbia University.

Department of History colleague Eric Beverley had attended that Columbia University event and upon his suggestion, Sellers and Jang decided to introduce the concept at Stony Brook as well.

The Map–A-Thon took place at the Stony Brook University Libraries North Reading Room and was organized by the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice and Policy, the Geospatial Center at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Stony Brook University Libraries.

Using their personal laptop computers, during a three-hour period Stony Brook students, professors and employees navigated satellite maps in search of buildings not yet documented in relief efforts. Next, they zoomed in on street maps, traced outlines of structures and then uploaded and saved them to a master file used by the Red Cross as an aid to providing relief services to hurricane victims.


Volunteers use laptops to map Puerto Rico disaster sites.

Jang, who is proficient with GIS, walked them through the process. Other volunteers familiar with the steps involved were on hand to lend support and answer questions.

“I’m not tech-savvy and it took me about five to 10 minutes to learn how to do,” said Will Darger Jr., a psychology/business major in Professor Lily Cushenberry’s Leadership and Creativity Lab, which recruited five of its 15 students to participate in the virtual relief effort.

Thomas Muench, a professor emeritus in economics who retired last year, struggled briefly with the process because he had taught mapping and was used to a different program — initially “drawing lines where I didn’t need to.”

Lizandia Perez, a staff secretary in the Chemistry building, had a personal stake in all of this. “My entire family lives in Puerto Rico,” she said. “One of my relatives lost a house. Others are missing rooftops.”

She learned what she could from the teaching session and then went back to her desk to work from her computer on her lunch break.

History professors Lori Flores and Nancy Tomes provided sign-in sheets for participating students to receive class credits.

“If this is successful we will have many more Map-A-Thons,” said Fazal. “Be on the lookout for other relief efforts.”

— Glenn Jochum

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