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South Africa’s National Disaster Atlas Uses webMathematica Technology to Fight Catastrophic Events

Published July 24, 2003

In South Africa, disasters such as droughts, floods, and famines are common occurrences. While emergency supplies are often available, they are useful only if government officials can anticipate when and where disaster will strike.

Dusan Sakulski, System Integrator and Coordinator of the National Disaster Management Centre of South Africa, has developed a webMathematica-based application that helps predict the time, location, and intensity of natural disasters. Named the National Disaster Hazard and Vulnerability Atlas, the program has already drawn support from the United Nations and NASA–both are calling for a Global Atlas, an expanded version that will incorporate climate data from around the world. The atlas has also found a niche as a valuable tool for education. The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the University of Virginia in the United States have both incorporated the atlas into their disaster management and prevention courses.

Sakulski describes the atlas as an “interactive virtual book with chapters on such topics as droughts, floods, famines, and cyclones.” The atlas generates customized maps and other graphics that illustrate historical weather patterns. Data evaluations that could take hours to do by hand take only a few seconds with the atlas. Sakulski notes, “Because the calculations are done by Mathematica, the results are always consistent and reliable.”

The graphics created by the atlas are used to pinpoint regions that regularly need disaster assistance and to predict which regions are likely to need assistance in the future. When potentially dangerous regions are identified, disaster management officials develop what-if scenarios and formulate strategic responses for each event. “In the event of a real disaster, our intention is to rerun the most similar scenario to get information that could minimize the disaster’s impact,” Sakulski says.

According to Sakulski, webMathematica is “simply the best.” Using just a web browser, anyone can access the atlas to gather and compile data, create geophysical maps, and run models of environmental systems “on the fly.” Another especially important feature of webMathematica is its ability to handle the large amount of data that essentially forms the core of the atlas. Says Sakulski, “With webMathematica, the atlas minimizes the amount of time and effort needed to plan for disasters and has solved many of the coordination difficulties that hindered past disaster relief programs.”

The atlas works by taking in user-specified parameters such as type and quantity of data. For example, the rainfall section of the atlas offers options to view average monthly distribution or average annual distribution for any given range of time. The groundwater section enables users to view groundwater levels, riverbeds, and other geographic features separately or in any combination on a map of South Africa. Once parameters have been set, the atlas passes them to webMathematica. There they are used to generate the particular map or graph requested and are then passed back to the web browser where the user can view, print, and save the results.

Sakulski considers the atlas to be a work in progress. The flexible structure of webMathematica applications makes it easy to add data and new features on an as-needed basis. “All in all,” says Sakulski, “there is no other technical environment that enables seamless integration of symbolic and numeric abilities like Mathematica.” Currently, Sakulski is beginning work on the Global Atlas that is being pursued by NASA and the United Nations. Both organizations have invited Sakulski in to demonstrate features of his atlas and are supporting him in the first Global Atlas “chapter,” a world-scale rainfall-tracking application.