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Earth visualization innovator wins award

An award commemorating a remarkable scientist who died in the 9/11 attacks was presented today to a man deemed a revolutionary at using satellite data for the good of humankind.

This year's Charles S. Falkenberg Award commends Daniel E. Irwin for creating an unprecedented monitoring and visualization system that's shared among scientists, scientific agencies, and governments in Central America and the Dominican Republic and that harnesses Earth imagery from space for the benefit of that part of the developing world.

Since Irwin pioneered the system in 2003 with funding from NASA, this system--known as SERVIR ("to serve," in Spanish)-- has been used to promote environmental sustainability through innovative application of space imagery and has enabled satellites to support responses to hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, algal blooms and other disasters across Central America.

A Central American environmental leader recalled in a letter supporting Irwin's award nomination the "incredible support" El Salvador received from Irwin and SERVIR in response to an earthquake, the eruption of the Santa Ana (Ilamatepec) volcano, and Hurricane Stan.

Irwin is now working to build similar systems and international collaborations in other developing regions of the world, such as East Africa.

"Daniel Irwin is leading a revolution in the application of Earth science information for sustainable development," said Woody W. Turner, NASA's program manager for ecological forecasting.

Irwin accepted the award today at the 2008 Summer Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Conference, which is taking place from 15-18 July 2008, in Durham, New Hampshire.

The Falkenberg Award, given jointly by ESIP and the American Geophysical Union (AGU), honors "a scientist under 45 years of age who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet."

Charles S. Falkenberg was a computer scientist who advanced techniques for collecting and visualizing earth and environmental science data. He, his wife, and their two young daughters lost their lives when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

An earth scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Daniel Irwin has more than 15 years of experience in using satellite remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Central America. He is currently the NASA Project Director for SERVIR, which was developed at the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. A SERVIR operational facility is located in Panama at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) and is supported by the US Agency for International Development.

SERVIR is considered an early achievement of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS)--a 70-plus country effort to develop a 21st century network for earth observation systems.

"On behalf of the entire SERVIR team, I'm deeply honored and humbled to receive the 2008 Charles S. Falkenberg Award," said Irwin today. "It's a real privilege to be able to transition valuable NASA Earth observation data and models developed by NASA and other partner agencies to improve the quality of life in the developing world."

While Irwin is not from the Central American region, he is "of the region," according to one of Irwin's colleagues from Panama. Irwin has developed numerous satellite remote sensing and GIS workshops and trained hundreds of Central American scientists and researchers.

Prior to joining NASA, Irwin developed GIS laboratories for conservation organizations in Guatemala and for the Guatemalan government. On his own time, he created playgrounds and the Viva La Selva ("Long Live the Forest") library for children in Guatemalan villages. He also founded an Internet cafe and other small businesses as economic alternatives to tropical rainforest slash-and-burn agriculture.

Still, SERVIR is the focus of Irwin's award. Turner called it "an entirely new approach to environmental management." With SERVIR, "Dan Irwin and his team have shown all of us that managing our environment and resources on a regional scale is no longer a dream for the future but a reality today."

About AGU: AGU is a worldwide scientific society of Earth and space scientists with more than 50,000 members. The organization advances, through unselfish cooperation in research, the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity.

AGU conducts meetings and conferences, publishes journals, books and a weekly newspaper, and sponsors a variety of educational and public information programs.

About ESIP: The Federation of Earth Science Information Partners is a network of researchers and associated groups that collects, interprets and develops applications for satellite-generated Earth observation information. Founded in 1998 under a grant from NASA, the consortium includes more than 100 member organizations, spanning NASA's and NOAA's data centers, government research laboratories, research universities, education resource providers, technology developers, and nonprofit and commercial enterprises.

Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
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