Daniel E. Irwin

2008 Charles S. Falkenberg Award Winner

Daniel E. Irwin received the Charles S. Falkenberg Award, presented jointly by AGU and the Earth Science Information Partnership (ESIP), at the 2008 Summer Federation of Earth Science Information Partners Conference, held 15–18 July 2008 in Durham, N. H. The award honors “a scientist under 45 years of age who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet.”


I am deeply honored and humbled today to receive the Charles S. Falkenberg Award. Without a doubt, this is the greatest honor of my professional career and a testament to the hard work of so many people who have contributed to SERVIR over the past few years. I’m fortunate to have been able to work with such incredible talent throughout NASA; the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the U.S. Agency for International Development; University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH); the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC), in Panama; the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development, in Kenya; and the Central American Commission on Environment and Development (CCAD), among others. I also thank AGU and Earth Science Information Partners Federation for the opportunity to be here.

Back in 1993, fresh out of graduate school, I took my first job with a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington, D. C. After accepting the job, I learned I was being sent to the jungles of Guatemala to implement a geographic information system (GIS) for the newly created Maya Biosphere Reserve, an area about the size of the state of New Jersey. My job was to work with communities within the reserve to map their traditional lands and re-sources using an early GPS and basic survey equipment. This job required extensive time in remote locations, and often I worked weeks on end in the reserve before returning to the main city where my office was located. In the spring of 1994, my life changed forever when NASA archaeologist Tom Sever visited Guatemala to conduct his annual fieldwork and I was fortuitously assigned to support his research in the field. Tom came down to Guatemala with pictures and slides of satellite imagery of the reserve, and I was mesmerized by the fact that I was looking at pictures of the area that had taken me weeks to map in the field under extreme conditions—heat, mosquitoes, ticks, and snakes. When he departed Guatemala, Tom left me his slides of the satellite imagery, and the following week I packed a mule with a slide projector, a small generator, and a white sheet and headed out to one of the villages I was working in. I assembled people of all ages in a thatched hut with a dirt floor and showed them the new high-tech satellite imagery. At first, it made no sense to them, most of whom had never before seen a map—moreover, the images were processed in false-color infrared. However, over 30 minutes I was able to train the participants to read the imagery using familiar features such as lakes and roads.

It was at that time—I’ll never forget—that the people from the village started to “get it.” There was a series of light bulb moments where they realized, and then expressed, that the forest didn’t go on forever—that the Mexican border was not so far away and that their forests were important to protect. With the town elders, we spent 3 more hours exploring and discussing the imagery—and it was that night that I truly realized the power of Earth science information for understanding and protecting our home planet. And that night, in a hut with a dirt floor in the middle of the jungle, I in fact realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

A few years later, I was fortunate to join NASA, which gave me the opportunity to develop SERVIR, which now operates in Central America, the Dominican Republic, and soon East Africa. In only a few short years, we’ve created a massive and passionate community of environmental professionals, students, government employees, and even heads of state who are all using Earth science information for improved knowledge and decision making in their countries.

Although I didn’t have the opportunity to know Charles Falkenberg, I am privileged to receive an award in his name—sharing his passion in enabling practical applications of Earth science through data visualization and information technology. This is an honor I don’t take lightly and that further motivates me to continue to build partnerships and develop activities.

Upon receiving the award notification in the mail a couple of months ago, I enthusiastically called a good friend and colleague at the World Bank. I read the letter to him stating that I had won the Charles S. Falkenberg Award, “given to a scientist under 45 years of age who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information.”

My World Bank friend and colleague wittily replied, “Congratulations, Dan, you’re under 45!”

He left me speechless, and then came back and said, “What I mean is, there are still a lot of years ahead to keep doing what you’ve been doing.” I certainly hope he’s right, and I look forward to continued work and collaboration with this great community in using Earth science information to benefit society.

Thank you.

—DANIEL E. IRWIN, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.