2008 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Daniel Irwin and the SERVIR Team

Led the development of new satellite technology being used internationally to improve disaster relief and environmental stewardship.

If most Americans were asked to name a federal agency whose work extends beyond our borders, few would think of the one agency whose work knows no bounds: NASA. The reality is the agency known for interplanetary exploration also engages in key activities to improve the United States’ international relations. One of these efforts, NASA’s SERVIR initiative, is helping many of our southern neighbors, and soon Africa, use satellite technology to respond to natural disasters, combat environmental problems and improve land use and agricultural practices. The project has had such a profound impact and has been so well received that its leader, Daniel Irwin, has been described as a celebrity in Guatemala, and the residents of San Andres, Guatemala, even nominated him to run for the town’s mayor, putting his name on the ballot.

SERVIR, which in Spanish means “to serve,” is a satellite visualization system that helps monitor and forecast ecological changes in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It was launched in February 2005, when its regional operational facility opened in Panama City, Panama. SERVIR team members who work at this facility gather and process satellite data, combine it with ground observations, analyze results and quickly pass along the resulting information to the appropriate leaders for weather forecasting, environmental management and disaster response. The SERVIR team also trains local workers, empowering them to analyze and report the data on their own.

Perhaps its most important use is assisting with disaster preparedness and response. When Hurricane Stan ravaged Central America in 2005, the SERVIR team quickly identified the areas hardest hit, showing where roads and bridges were impassable and which communities were stranded. This information was delivered to relief organizations and rescuers immediately, enabling them to strategically target their efforts. In November 2006, when severe weather caused flooding and landslides in Panama, the SERVIR team provided rain forecasts and damage projections, which prompted life-saving evacuations. From May to October 2007, the system was utilized in six different disasters ranging from assessment of economic losses due to forest fires in Belize to evaluation of flood impacts due to Hurricane Dean in Mexico.

SERVIR is also used to monitor fire hotspots in the region. In Nicaragua, SERVIR has detected burning fires and notified authorities with the locations of these fires, enabling the forestry department to dispatch ground crews to assess the situation. The technology is also used to identify parts of the ocean that are unsafe for fishing, avoiding health problems for consumers and helping local businesses by making sure the fish they export are safe. SERVIR is currently creating new tools to help assess climate change, such as climate projection mapping. It is also incorporating new air quality monitoring capability. The data collected by SERVIR helps us understand not only the present and the future, but the past, as it has provided insights into why the Mayans disappeared.

SERVIR has been recognized as a model of international cooperation to address environmental challenges. The Global Earth Observation System, a collaborative effort on the part of more than 70 nations to foster cooperation among nations to protect our environment, recognized SERVIR during a recent summit as a template for pooling resources to address common problems. Also, plans are in the works to extend SERVIR to the eastern part of Africa, perhaps to as many as 14 countries.

In addition to being a model for international cooperation, SERVIR offers a template for interagency partnerships. Although NASA is the lead, the U.S. Agency for International Development plays a key role, as do the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, which offer indirect support.

With so many moving pieces, strong leadership is essential to ensure the program’s effectiveness. Daniel Irwin provides that leadership, and his enthusiasm drives this program. His remarkable energy is exemplified by the fact that, in addition to leading this international effort, he has become an active member in the San Andres, Guatemala community, helping to build the first children’s library in the region, as well as an extensive playground that serves more than 4,000 children.

Irwin’s commitment is indicative of his team’s. Working together, the SERVIR team is spreading good will and good work to enrich and save lives around the world.