By Laura Freeman
When monsoon clouds gather over the low-lying country of Bangladesh, seasonal rains can suddenly become deadly floods. Lives depend on getting help where it is needed quickly, but to date there have been no satellite maps to guide rescuers through the complex streets of the country's capital, Dhaka, a city of 5.3 million people.
Akhlahque Haque, Ph.D., a native of Bangladesh who teaches public administration in UAB's Department of Government, is using his skills in geographic information systems (GIS) technology to create the first comprehensive digital visual maps of the area, and he is training others to carry on the work.
Haque traveled to Bangladesh in September as a Fulbright scholar sponsored by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. He served as a visiting professor at BRAC University in Dhaka, teaching a Master of Development Studies program that provided students with "skills for economic development and social emancipation," Haque says.
After class hours, he and a crew of graduate students crisscrossed the city by car and rickshaw to collect data on major roadways, railway stations, hospitals, and other public facilities. The team filtered that data through GIS software and satellite images to create digital maps that will be made available online. "The preliminary results are expected to pinpoint alternative routes or the best routes for entering and exiting the city during times of crisis, such as natural disasters," says Haque. "The project will be a prototype for a larger undertaking that can be carried out by future generations of GIS users."
The project took on a renewed sense of urgency in November, when Cyclone Sidr swept through Bangladesh, killing thousands. Haque, who was making his first return visit to his homeland in 18 years, was recording his experiences on a blog, UAB in Bangladesh . Soon after the deadly storm passed, he wrote an entry on the remarkable resiliency of this battered land:
"I have asked the relatives who were directly affected by the storm about how they are coping with this on the ground. I was surprised to learn that the people by far have accepted their fate and are now ready to rebuild from scratch. They said since there is no one who had the means to help them, there is no reason to wait for some miracle to happen."
Using technology that only a few years ago would have been considered little short of miraculous, Haque is doing his part to make sure that when the next storm comes, Bangladeshi authorities have better means to help.