SAN FRANCISCO — Mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat and ESRI, a large developer of geographic information systems, are assisting the massive campaign to clean up the Gulf oil spill by giving federal, state and local agencies the ability to share data, maps and other information.

ESRI is using its mobile geographic information system (GIS) technology to provide cleanup crews in five states along the Gulf of Mexico with detailed maps showing the location of the oil slick in addition to digital photos of those sites and wildlife in the Louisiana marshes where the oil has penetrated the coastline. That information is being used to determine where to place containment booms designed to protect wildlife from the encroaching oil and where to deploy teams of biologists working to save brown pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana, according to Tom Patterson, mapping specialist for ESRI of Redlands, Calif.

Because there is no cell phone coverage in much of the cleanup area, ESRI is relying on Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite terminals to link the hand-held units being used by disaster response teams to upload location information, digital photos and status information with ESRI’s ArcGIS server located in Houston, Patterson wrote in an e-mail. ArcGIS is the name of ESRI’s GIS software suite used to store and manipulate data, maps and models.

The server in Houston is then able to update every Internet map viewer on display in the Emergency Operation Centers spread throughout the five-state region affected by the Gulf oil spill, Patterson wrote. “This information is enabling organizations and government officials to visualize and maintain situational awareness during daily operations,” he added.

The Gulf oil spill, which began April 20 when BP Plc’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, set the stage for the largest implementation of mobile GIS technology in history, according to Patterson. The effort involves government, military and commercial teams with little or no experience using GIS. In order to track the spill and cleanup efforts, BP purchased 300 hand-held computers, which they distributed from emergency operations centers in Louisiana. Those computers are being used for a variety of jobs including mapping, shoreline assessment and wildlife rescue from western Louisiana to Florida, Patterson added.

While ESRI officials are no longer overseeing the use of their products in the Gulf region, they are providing administrative and software support to the emergency response teams, Patterson wrote. “We will support the response and recovery of the crisis as long as they need us,” he added.

This was the first time ESRI has relied on the BGAN terminal in its emergency response work, according to Patterson. Jack Deasy, director of civil programs for Inmarsat Government Services in Washington, added that the decision to combine BGAN with ESRI’s mobile mapping software was “highly innovative.” Nevertheless, BGAN is designed precisely for the purpose of allowing remote teams to share information while relying on Internet-based hardware and software, Deasy wrote in an e-mail.

ESRI’s Patterson added that BGAN is likely to be used in the company’s future disaster response initiatives, including efforts to track the spread of wildfires. “The BGAN terminal was the missing link needed for real-time communications of vital information to transmit from the scene to incident command post officials for better informed decision making,” Patterson wrote. “I intend to carry one on every wildfire I respond to.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...