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DDS developing software to assist with disaster prevention

Stennis Space Center — Diamond Data Systems Inc. (DDS) went from being a “local” to a “national” company after Hurricane Katrina. Like most Coast companies, Diamond Data Systems had a number of employees displaced by the storm. But, in this case, the technology firm was able to retain 71 of its 76 employees — including those who relocated outside of the state.

Employees are now temporarily spread out throughout the country in Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The company quickly revamped its infrastructure to support employees working remotely after being displaced by the storm. And it assured employees that they would continue to get paid despite the interruption in business.

Up and running

DDS provides information technology (IT) solutions that include IT strategy, software engineering, network infrastructure design, information assurance, IT contracting and IT outsourcing. DDS clients comprise a variety of industries including healthcare, the oil and gas industry, and federal and local governments. The company is headquartered in New Orleans with offices at Stennis Space Center. Both offices were impacted by Katrina. The company was able to get the Stennis office up and running first.

In order to keep the high-tech workforce together, DDS held conference calls with employees weekly after the storm. In addition to the company making it easy for employees to continue working remotely after the storm, employees were assured that DDS was still a good place for them to work.

“Key to retaining the employees was making sure that they understand they have just as many opportunities staying with Diamond Data Systems now as they did before the storm,” said Joey Auer, president and CEO, Diamond Data Systems. “We also accommodated their current situation by providing them with incentives to help Diamond Data grow, showing them there are new opportunities for Diamond Data Systems in lieu of them jumping ship to another company in another city.”

Understanding the opportunities

The company actually gained about 10 customers after the storm because employees who relocated in new cities used it as an opportunity to bring the company new business. One new customer is Microsoft. Auer said he asked the employee who gained Microsoft as a client why he brought the business to DDS instead of another company.

“He said he feels he has greater opportunities staying with Diamond Data,” Auer said. “It took a lot of work to make sure people understood their opportunities are here.”

In some ways, Katrina helped jump start the company’s strategic positioning. Auer said they got two years of strategic planning done in two weeks.

“It forced us to get things done to help us work remotely,” Auer said. “We did things we had talked about doing for a long time such as improving our way of communicating with everyone. We had to relocate our infrastructure as a result of the storm, and Stennis was our first office to get back. It was our base of operation. It was amazing that Stennis Space Center was operational pretty fast. That was a pivotal point for us to become operational again.”

Importance of GIS

Hurricane Katrina showed the value and importance of geographic information systems. Diamond Data Systems was already working on a grant for development of LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) terrain and elevation mapping data. LIDAR can be used for emergency management, high resolution mapping and analysis and disaster prevention.

On September 4, 2005, NASA announced that Diamond Data Systems was awarded a phase II SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research) contract for development of innovative software to use LIDAR data for applications such as disaster prevention through flood hazard mapping and planning, emergency management, weather studies and high-resolution mapping and analysis.

“The capabilities provided by this software are more important now than ever in this post-Katrina era,” said Keith Alphonso, DDS project director and director of the DDS Stennis office. “This solution can help provide valuable information on flood prevention and disaster management so that we can avoid catastrophes like this in the future and help rebuild the Gulf Coast now.”

Post-storm numbers crunching

Alphonso said that company leaders met in Baton Rouge, La., following the storm to do a budgetary analysis to see what needed to be done to survive.

“Crunching numbers we found we could continue to pay employees despite their inability to work for at least the full month of September and would continue to evaluate the situation beyond that,” Alphonso said. “With all our employees were going through, we didn’t want them to have to worry about getting paid, as well. The company took a big financial hit, but luckily we were financially strong enough to afford the decision and able to keep our employees, which is very important. If we couldn’t keep our employees, we would not be able to keep our company.”

By October, nearly everyone was back to work. And they were working in an environment with a new awareness of the importance of what they are doing, especially on the LIDAR project.

“This technology is crucial to determine things like flood plain mapping for planning purposes,” Alphonso said. “To get LIDAR data, a plane or sometimes a satellite shoots a laser at the ground to get very accurate elevation measurements. The elevations measurements are so accurate you have problems with things like cars, bushes, houses and trees. You must do a lot of processing of data to find out where the ground is. By determining the elevation, you know where to put critical infrastructure. You know where and how to rebuild. Everyone wants to know that information.”

DDS software is designed to process all types of LIDAR data. It can be used to track changes and remediate coastal erosion, improve navigation safety by shooting through water to find obstructions for nautical charting purposes, for aviation safety and to study weather. LIDAR data can also be used for forest management, and for land use mapping and planning such as right of way analysis for oil and gas companies and transmission line right of way analysis for power companies.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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