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Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. I’m Kevin Ammons and today we are talking to Dr. Barrett Kennedy, professor of architecture at Louisiana State University College of Design.
Kevin Ammons: Dr. Kennedy is working with NCPTT to develop a strategy for the rapid documentation of historic resources. Welcome to podcast, Barrett.
Barrett Kennedy: Hey Kevin. It’s good to be here.
Kevin Ammons: Last time I saw you, Barrett, you were hovering precariously about 30 feet over Front Street in Natchitoches with a camera. Was that related to this new technique?
Barrett Kennedy: Yeah, that’s right, Kevin, but as I recall, it was your folks at the center that got me sky high over Cane River Lake. It was all strictly in the line of duty I guess, but let me you, it was a perspective rarely equaled in Louisiana.
But the project that we’re talking about involved improvements to stabilize the road bed, upgrade utilities and add some barrier free access components to Front Street. It was a classic conflict of interest between preservation and progress, and the work threatened the historic integrity of the street with its distinctive pattern brickwork. Natchitoches was looking for a way to quickly, accurately, and of course inexpensively document the existing appearance of about 4 blocks of historic brick paving. Project was set and on ready and time was of the essence, so we really were coming in on the last moment.
I’d been working on a rapid documentation project with the NCPTT, so on behalf of the city and the Cane River Heritage area, the center approached me with the Front Street problem. Well we were glad to rise to the challenge and we decided to use some technologies that we’d been working with, which were GPS enabled digital cameras as a means to comprehensively document all of the paving in the project zone.
What we did was place reference targets on the street surface and used a bucket lift, or a cherry picker, to position a photographer at an elevation of about 40 feet above the street, and then we systematically moved the lift along the street, capturing high resolution digital imagery. We were then able to take those images and load them into a GIS system and create a dimensionally accurate, spatial photo mosaic of the Front Street brick work.
The images were also loaded into Google Earth to facilitate access to that photographic record. The photo mosaic could then be used to guide the process of relaying the historic brick and replicating the distinctive patterns once all of the other roadway improvements were completed. Kevin, I understand that the finished street work looks good and the project represents a successful balance between preservation and safety.
Kevin Ammons: Your current project with NCPTT is to develop and test geospatially enabled digital video documentation. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Can you walk us through it?
Barrett Kennedy: Well, I’ll try, Kevin. You’re right, it is a mouthful, but conceptually it’s pretty simple. It’s a natural progression from the use of GPS enabled still photography that I was just talking about.
The difference is that we are substituting a digital video stream for the still imagery. In this sense, the geospatial video refers to the melding of video and GPS technologies. The data collection equipment that we use enables us to embed a GPS data stream, or in other words, location data, on one of the audio tracks of the digital video tape. We can still include a recording of commentary or other environmental sounds on the other audio track as a supplement to that audio/video record.
Kevin Ammons: What exactly is spatial data?
Barrett Kennedy: Well the term spatial data indicates data that references location relative to space and time. So it’s a geographical construct of latitude, longitude, altitude, and date, for example.
The spatial reference allows us to use a GIS system to manage multiple, diverse layers of information, in relationship with a global relation or physical place. Maps are a useful and familiar way of representing and visualizing these multidimensional layers of information in a GIS system. For example, Google Maps and Google Earth are components of a simple, user-friendly spatial data management system.
Kevin Ammons: How did this collaborative effort with NCPTT begin?
Barrett Kennedy: Well, Kevin the operational premise is that documentation is fundamental to successful heritage conservation, and accurate fulsome documentation is essential for the integration for heritage conservation into a broad range of resource management and planning activities, particularly in places that are subject to a high risk of human induced disaster.
So, what we were looking for was a means to rapidly and inexpensively capture the data that characterizes large areas, for example, extensive cultural landscapes, streetscapes, and historic districts. Examples of this might include Cane River National Heritage Area or one of New Orleans’ many National Register historic districts.
Well, we’ve worked with the NCPTT on several internet related information management and distance learning projects over the past ten years or so and felt like the center would be a natural partner for this project. Consequently we applied for and received support from the Preservation Training and Technology grants program to explore how emerging spatially enabled technologies could advance resource documentation methods and facilitate better informed heritage stewardship. Importantly, in a place like Louisiana, this also means informed disaster planning and preparedness.
So we were just mobilizing our project in August of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, closely followed by Hurricane Rita. So what was conceived as a research exercise to explore techniques for rapid documentation in anticipation of a disaster became an all too real incident response and mitigation challenge. Well, the U.S., as you know, never encountered a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina.
In the midst of the chaotic response effort we recognized that timely access to spatial data was absolutely essential in responding to the disaster, and as a consequence we developed the LSU GIS Clearing House to collect, index, and disseminate spatially referenced data to a variety of federal, state, and local agencies.
Kevin, I should mention that our team received a national award from the Association of American Geographers for these efforts, but to continue as we indexed the assorted spatial sets, we were frustrated that field collected data was inconsistent and too often incomplete and unreliable.
This affirmed our original premise that a new method for rapid spatially enabled data collection would improve the consistency and reliability of the data and make it more useful not just in disaster planning, but also, as we came to realize, in disaster response and mitigation efforts. We felt that the digital video was a key element in our approach because of its low-cost data richness and rapid technological advancement. So, working with a research partner from the University of Ireland, we acquired a prototype GPS enabled video system that was being developed for roadway and pipeline inspection applications.
We configured an inexpensive data collection system on this foundation that consisted of three video cameras with wide angle lenses and mounted these on suction cups on a vehicle so that they recorded the view perpendicular to the video, that is, each side of the road way and the road straight ahead as we moved down the roadway at about 15 to 20 miles an hour. We began testing this configuration in January of 2006 in the lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, which was one of the areas most profoundly impacted by Hurricane Katrina and Rita.
Kevin, at the same time we also explored the use of spatially enabled PDAs and digital still photography so that we could deploy mobile digital survey forms that ensured data consistency and rapid data transfer to legacy GIS systems. This represents the interactive data entry component that we’re currently working to integrate with the spatial video system.
Kevin Ammons: How is this technique different from traditional documentation strategies?
Barrett Kennedy: The fundamental difference that we’re talking about here is that we’re working with a digital environment from the outset, whether with a spatially enabled video, or the PDAs and the still imagery.
Obviously, this approach is going to be faster, far more robust, and more scalable than using paper forms, with the ability as well to capture spatial data, video and audio commentary, and other kinds of data in a digital environment.
Importantly, where effective triage is critical for the protection of threatened resources, this configuration can be quickly employed to disaster scenes, ensuring the rapid collection of data, which in turn, can be uploaded to internet enabled GIS systems for analysis by experts off-site. In other words, analyzed by folks virtually anywhere in the internet world.
Kevin Ammons: Is this only useful in disaster context?
Barrett Kennedy: No, Kevin.
Remember, we originally conceived this of approach as a way to rapidly and inexpensively document landscapes and streetscapes as part of a proactive strategy of anticipating threats to heritage resources, whether those threats might be slow and incremental or sudden and cataclysmic.
The idea is to capture the data, then return to the office and do the analysis on an as needed basis. The appropriate expert can review the data stream and supplement the database with their analysis. As I said earlier, we see documentation as a key to preservation, so the more effective we are in anticipatory documentation, the better prepared we’ll be for planning efforts and disaster response efforts.
Kevin Ammons: Any particular problems associated with this technique?
Barrett Kennedy: Well, yes, Kevin. Since we don’t have the resources of Google at our disposal, it has been a challenging learning curve for us.
But since we’re compelled to take this affordable, cost-effective approach, we’re reminded constantly to focus on really practical applications of these complex, rapidly evolving technologies. For instance, we’re asking simple questions that the information must approach and capture and how that might critically inform initial disaster response and mitigation efforts.
At the same time, as we develop a fundamental understanding of the technologies and their developmental trajectory, our prototyping efforts can help us better understand how we can effectively assimilate the technologies into our work processes and become more effective as stewards of our heritage assets.
Going forward, we know that we can anticipate higher resolution digital video cameras with crisp wide angle and telephoto optics, and we certainly expect greater sensitivity and accuracy in our GPS devices, as well as more robust information management and analysis systems with friendlier user interfaces. All of this technology is coming, but it’s the kind of prototyping that I’m talking about here that prepares us to take best advantage of the technological advances as they become available and affordable.
The data collection process is pretty straight forward and I expect that the ongoing advances in audio/video technologies will resolve many of the technical problems that we’ve encountered.
Even so, remember the project was conceived as broadly inclusive and the real challenge is in configuring a user friendly interface that invites participation of a wide range of area experts. These might be the historical architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers, historians, and others as well as a broad cross-section of public constituencies, from governmental agencies and preservation commissions to neighborhood associations and homeowners.
As we go forward, we will be looking for ways to meld the technologies into readily accessible, interactive applications that can deliver useful information across the internet to all of these constituencies.
Kevin Ammons: Are there opportunities for greater collaboration?
Barrett Kennedy: Well, what we’d like to do is test the approach across a representative range of sights and settings and bring a variety of disciplines together to interact and contribute to the developmental process over these prototyping efforts.
This means we’re actively looking for potential partners and projects that might help with the prototyping as part of an overall planning and management strategy.
Having said that, Kevin, I want to reiterate that we’ll continue to be interested in opportunities to respond to the rapid documentation needs that we encounter in the wake of disaster events.
Kevin Ammons: Barrett, thanks for being here.
Barrett Kennedy: Really, Kevin, it’s been my pleasure and I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with you. Thanks very much.
Kevin Ammons: If you’d like to learn more about this project, visit our Podcast Shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.
Produced by Jeff Guin and Bethany Frank