Getting in Touch to Stop an Epidemic

Using Tangible Landscape to control Sudden Oak Death

On the West Coast of the U.S., a forest disease called sudden oak death is spreading, and land managers are on a mission to contain it. Forestry and Environmental Resources Ph.D. student Devon Gaydos and her team of collaborators are now using geospatial analytics to help those managers predict where the disease is likely to spread and which interventions might be most effective.

“We’ve been developing an interactive disease simulation model that allows stakeholders to test different management scenarios,” Devon says. “Until now, it’s mainly been used as a research tool, but this modeling framework has the potential to facilitate discussions between different stakeholder groups and to inform solutions for real-world landscape-scale problems.”

Advised by Ross Meentemeyer, director of the Center for Geospatial Analytics and professor in the College of Natural Resources, Devon is working with other students in the center to engage West Coast stakeholders in decision-making through Tangible Landscape––a system that weaves interactive simulations with a user-friendly interface that is responsive to touch.

A proof of concept published last March showed how center researchers were able to use Tangible Landscape to effectively roleplay sudden oak death management on a modeled landscape of California’s Sonoma Valley. Last month, Devon and her team debuted the model for use outside of the lab, flying to Curry County, Oregon, to conduct an on-site workshop with a group of stakeholders highly invested in sudden oak death management in the region. The group included foresters, forest pathologists and epidemiologists from the Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State University and U.S. Forest Service.

At the workshop, the dozen attendees gathered around a card-table-sized model representing a 12-km by 8-km area of land within Oregon’s sudden oak death quarantine zone. They were then challenged to select areas for management—that is, removal of host trees—to curtail spread as much as possible within a five-year timeframe, with varying levels of potential funding. Particularly important was protection of nearby Coos County, where a future quarantine could restrict export of timber, fruits and cultivated plants from a major international port. An online dashboard kept track of each player’s choices in this serious game and encouraged discussion among all the players.

As participants experimented with the model, they had room to be creative. One player arranged management on the landscape in a way that was “nothing we’d thought of before,” Devon says. Attendees provided helpful feedback for model improvement as well as reported how the system could be useful in their own work: from identifying where to conduct aerial surveys for dead trees, to determining funding needs and educating regional landowners.

“Our main goal was to demonstrate the model and get feedback from everyone,” Devon says. “That feedback is going to be used to improve the model so that we can use it in the future with other stakeholders and in different locations.” For example, Devon plans to return to Oregon to conduct another workshop next summer, this time with timber companies, private citizens and federal and state landowners.

“Engaging stakeholders with Tangible Landscape makes it possible to put sophisticated models at everyone’s fingertips without a steep learning curve, because hands-on interaction is very intuitive,” Meentemeyer says. “This is a game changer. And we could do so much more. We’re only scratching the surface.” Involving stakeholders in research and collaborative decision-making is a hallmark approach at the Center for Geospatial Analytics, and Meentemeyer welcomes additional partnerships. “When students and other researchers from the College of Natural Resources and beyond partner with the center, we’re able to accomplish things that no one ever dreamed of.”

NSF Grant Funds Smart City Research to Tackle Regional Problems with Serious Games

Interacting with a digital map

Smart City researchers at North Carolina State University are uniting leaders from government, industry, academia and non-profit groups across the Triangle to design an online game called TomorrowNow that will crowdsource perspectives on stormwater management in the region and inform policy decisions. The work is supported by a four-year, $499,847 grant from the National Science Foundation through its Smart and Connected Communities initiative.

“Our aim is to transform engagement of urban and rural residents and policymakers in region-wide problems like stormwater management,” says Ross Meentemeyer, director of NC State’s Center for Geospatial Analytics, professor in the College of Natural Resources and leader of the project. “Solutions to large-scale problems in rapidly urbanizing regions require input from a variety of stakeholders and coordination between nearby cities and towns. We expect that an online game, as a collaborative platform for knowledge-sharing, could enhance smart connections among communities and break down barriers to finding optimum solutions.” The game will use innovative geospatial analytics to enable communities connected by shared water networks––and their associated problems of flooding and pollution––to collaboratively design management alternatives. Publicly available, the game would allow anyone to contribute.

The first step to producing the game is to build a network of regional stakeholders that can provide input on the idea and frame its development. Meentemeyer and Helena Mitasova, professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at NC State, will collaborate with Kevin Foy of North Carolina Central University, Emily Bernhard of Duke University and Todd BenDor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to recruit representative groups from across the Triangle to planning workshops, create spatial models of urbanization and stormwater flow, and develop technical specifications for the game.

The research team will co-host symposia, in-person discussions and online forums to identify obstacles that have previously hindered decision-making efforts regarding stormwater. These dialogues will also define the project’s research agenda and the design of a game that is functional, engaging, realistic and easy to use. This model for engagement in interdisciplinary citizen science will also establish an innovative platform for further Smart City initiatives between area universities, local governments and the public.

“This unprecedented collaboration draws on the strengths of four powerhouse universities in the region,” Meentemeyer says, “and ultimately, we expect that our approach will serve as a model to empower smart and connected communities elsewhere.”


For more information, see the National Science Foundation press release.

Getting in Touch with the Designer in All of Us

Payam Tabrizian looks on as another researcher experiments with Tangible Landscape

Payam Tabrizian is a landscape architect and Ph.D. student in Design, but he firmly believes that designing landscapes shouldn’t be limited to the professionals. “All people are designers by nature,” he says, “and they should be designers”––they need only the chance to shine. At the Center for Geospatial Analytics, Payam keeps this motto in mind as he develops high-tech tools that bridge real and virtual worlds. His research also bridges disciplinary gaps between design and the geospatial and cognitive sciences. His central aim, he explains, is “to unleash people’s creativity.”

Now, he and his colleagues Anna Petrasova and Brendan Harmon are one step closer to liberating the imaginations of professional and amateur designers alike, as they bring landscape design into the fast lane and make it something you can literally put your hands on.

Traditionally, professional landscape design plans take months to develop. From the original concept sketch to final approval, these plans require a range of software expertise to produce, and they pass through the hands of many people who have the skillsets to help visualize and interpret the initial ideas, as well as assess how the landscape might function ecologically. Thanks to Payam and his colleagues, now the entire process of hand-sketching, 3D modeling, and assessing landscape pattern takes just minutes, and anyone can do it.

Their solution is a high-tech but intuitive one: a person simply arranges cloth pieces on the surface of a landscape model to represent different vegetation types, and as that arrangement is scanned and fed into a computer, the user receives immediate feedback about ecological indices, such as landscape complexity and biodiversity, and can see their creation rendered as a photorealistic 3D model in a virtual reality display. What used to take months can now take minutes, and designers can refine their plans over and over in response to the near-real-time feedback.

Payam’s approach uses the Center for Geospatial Analytics’ celebrated Tangible Landscape system, developed by Dr. Helena Mitasova and her Ph.D. students, Anna Petrasova, Vaclav Petras, and Brendan Harmon. Tangible Landscape runs on open source GRASS GIS software coupled with a scanner and projector; Payam has connected the system with the open source 3D modeling and rendering software Blender, enabling traditional bird’s-eye views of landscapes to be visualized at ground-level, from the human perspective, in virtual reality.

Any person regardless of their expertise can sit down with a Tangible Landscape setup, equipped with a set of colorful cloth pieces, and arrange those pieces to design a landscape from scratch. And Payam believes it’s important that they do. Everyone has a sense of beauty, balance, and composition, he explains, and all they need to design landscapes are the tools that can help bring their visions to life and help them understand what their designs mean for the surrounding ecosystem.

The new technology produces a dynamic dashboard that reports the size, shape, number, and diversity of vegetation patches the designer chooses—variables important to consider from an ecological perspective. “This idea of landscape metrics is intimidating for landscape ecologists, let alone designers,” Payam says, but the dashboard breaks down barriers for considering how designed landscapes could affect biodiversity, habitat suitability, and ecosystem function.

landscape design with felt and VRPayam and his collaborators unveiled the new technology at the April 2017 annual meeting of the US regional association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology (US-IALE) in Baltimore, MD. One of the many users of the demo was Joan Iverson Nassauer from the University of Michigan, co-editor-in-chief of Landscape & Urban Planning and a distinguished scholar in the fields of landscape architecture and landscape ecology. “It was great fun to use this technology,” she told Payam by email after the conference, “and the results of each trial could be very informative for designers.”

So, what’s next? Payam and his team will soon invite faculty from NC State’s Department of Landscape Architecture to experiment with the prototype and offer their feedback. Equipped with tracing paper, markers, and a variety of colored felt pieces, these faculty will have the enviable task of designing landscapes in a way that is both fast and fun, and which brings them immediately into the places they create. Perhaps soon, all of our inner designers will be able to do the same.

The Hard Realities of Controlling an Epidemic

Sudden Oak Death landscape

post by jbvogler

New research on sudden oak death disease published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Ross Meentemeyer and colleagues from Cambridge and UC Davis models disease transmission in California forests and addresses the human, financial and political realities of controlling the SOD epidemic in the region.

Read the full story in NC State News article, “A Post Mortem on Sudden Oak Death” posted May 19.

This research has also captured the attention of reporters from The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.  Take a moment to read what NC State News and outlets from DC to LA are saying about this collaborative work.

Cunniffe, N.J., Cobb, R.C., Meentemeyer, R.K., Rizzo, D., and Gilligan, C.A. (2016). Modeling when, where and how to manage a forest epidemic: sudden oak death in CaliforniaProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Citizen Science Helps Predict Risk Of Emerging Infectious Disease

citizen scientists

post by jbvogler

Citizen science with volunteered geographic information is playing a critical role in tracking and predicting the spread of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) disease according to new research published by Center researchers Ross K. Meentemeyer, Monica A. Dorning, and John B. Vogler and their UC Berkeley colleagues Doug Schmidt and Matteo Garbelotto.  SOD, caused by the generalist, invasive pathogen Phytophtora ramorum, has killed millions of oak and tanoak trees across coastal California and Oregon. Since 2008, the citizen science program called “SOD Blitz” has engaged, educated and trained over 1,600 volunteers to detect and locate the pathogen during peak windows of seasonal disease expression. These data have been used to generate increasingly accurate predictive maps of high risk areas that inform stakeholders where they should prioritize disease management efforts. The results, published in the May issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, demonstrate the meaningful contributions that citizen scientists can make to large-scale, long-term monitoring and spatial prediction of emerging infectious plant diseases. Related press and the journal article citation and abstract follow.



– Trees turned to snags: “Sudden Oak Death” fells California oaks in their prime [National Science Foundation | May 1, 2015]

– Sudden Oak Death Path Predicted By Citizen Scientists [Science 2.0 | May 1, 2015]

– Citizen Science Helps Predict Risk of Emerging Infectious Disease [ | May 1, 2015]


Citation: Ross K Meentemeyer, Monica A Dorning, John B Vogler, Douglas Schmidt, and Matteo Garbelotto 2015. Citizen science helps predict risk of emerging infectious disease. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13(4): 189–194.

Abstract: Engaging citizen scientists is becoming an increasingly popular technique for collecting large amounts of ecological data while also creating an avenue for outreach and public support for research. Here we describe a unique study, in which citizen scientists played a key role in the spatial prediction of an emerging infectious disease. The yearly citizen-science program called “Sudden Oak Death (SOD) Blitz” engages and educates volunteers in detecting the causal pathogen during peak windows of seasonal disease expression. We used these data – many of which were collected from under-sampled urban ecosystems – to develop predictive maps of disease risk and to inform stakeholders on where they should prioritize management efforts. We found that continuing the SOD Blitz program over 6 consecutive years improved our understanding of disease dynamics and increased the accuracy of our predictive models. We also found that self-identified non-professionals were just as capable of detecting the disease as were professionals. Our results indicate that using long-term citizen-science data to predict the risk of emerging infectious plant diseases in urban ecosystems holds substantial promise.

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