ALEXANDRIA, Va. - As an intern and later a full-time research engineer at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Geospatial Research Laboratory (GRL), Dr. Michelle Hamilton invented a system for Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis, which was patented in September 2020 for emergency responders’ use in prioritizing key geolocations for support allocations and mitigation efforts.
“Warfighters and first-line responders need this to be able to rapidly collaborate on ideas, test hypotheses and different scenarios and connect to distributed data sources,” Hamilton said.
The invention is a data-collection system creating risk indexes based on combined indicators. As a methodology for structuring and solving complex decision and planning problems, Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) allows decision-maker preferences when developing solutions.
Members of the GRL project team included original project manager Andrew Jenkins, project manager successor and research physical scientist John Nedza and geographer Demetra Voyadgis for the multi-faced invention featuring MCDA, further developed as Geo-centric Environment for Analysis and Reasoning (GEAR).
Hamilton and the team will be recognized next year in a patent plaque presentation ceremony by senior leaders from ERDC’s Office of Research and Technology Transfer, which processes patents for the center.
Created and tested at GRL, the project began in 2013 and continued development through 2017, with technology transition to the Army Geospatial Center (AGC).
Transitions and Current Uses
In spring 2020, GEAR was used to analyze the need for, and to prioritize the placement of, alternate care facilities as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ COVID-19 response. The MCDA component of GEAR is being developed as a data analysis tool by ERDC Environmental Laboratory’s Risk and Decision Science Team to assess the information’s decision-making value.
According to AGC physical scientist Heather Speight, AGC’s Systems Application and Integration Branch is using GEAR to generate products as part of the Public Health Informatics (PHIMATICS) prototype development effort. She described how PHIMATICS’s objective is to create a digital surveillance platform that uses publicly available data to detect and anticipate infectious disease outbreaks and related population sentiment for the purpose of identifying and communicating emerging public health threats and potential mitigation strategies.
“I was an intern at the time when we originally sketched out the concept. I appreciate the idea meritocracy ethos at GRL, as these seasoned geospatial professionals embraced my ideas and implemented them, even though I was an intern and new to the geospatial profession,” said Hamilton whose internship advanced to a GRL research engineer position for three years.
Now director of intelligence programs for Virginia-based Commonwealth Computer Research Inc., Hamilton’s invention idea evolved following her interest in the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative on the 2011 Haiti earthquakes’ disaster relief challenges.
“This initiative pointed out communications technologies have led to a proliferation in the quantity of information available to humanitarian workers at all levels, but not necessarily any corresponding improvements in their abilities to usefully handle that information,” she said. “This prevalence of geospatial information provided a new opportunity to apply Geographical Information Systems (GIS)-based MCDA to a broad spectrum of use cases.”
“Volunteered geographic information, open GIS software, geo-service-based tools, cloud-based virtualized platforms and worldwide collaboration among both domain experts and general users greatly increased the quantity and accessibility of geospatially referenced data resources,” Hamilton said. “However, there was a lack of GIS-based MCDA tools that integrated this decision-driven process within a widely accessible, robust geo-framework environment, designed for user-friendly interaction.”
Software Invention Inspiration
“This inspired the need to develop a software that can easily pull in lots of emerging data layers as new understandings of the disaster unfolded,” Hamilton said. “Basically, the concept of my invention is that you create a starting risk model that you use to prioritize actions based on the limited information that you have. As the disaster unfolds, you gain more information which necessitates a different risk model ― different variables become more or less important.”
Using data sources, decision analysis and geo-visualization, the system manages data space objects, filters analytical criteria and map graphical views.
“For the geospatial software framework, the researchers chose to implement an open source, web-based GIS that could ingest authoritative, but also open source and user-generated data, as often they are either the most current or only data available in dynamic environments,” Voyadgis said. “To address complex problems, we needed Michelle’s expertise to design the MCDA. John Nedza assumed the role of project manager towards the end of the first year and guided the project to completion. He was instrumental in distilling salient requirements based on his expertise in geospatial data structures and warfighter needs, and feedback from user juries, exercises and use cases.”
Citing advantages, Hamilton said that the patented MCDA system offers innovative science and technology approaches to address Army geospatial domain capability gaps and advance Geo Analysis and Reasoning workflow.