31 March 2011

Models vs reality

The Design Observer Group has two interesting posts. The first laments missing labels for major bodies of water on google maps.

The second is an essay on the Army Corps of Engineers model of the Mississippi basin that's full of interesting institutional details, e.g.,
The Mississippi Basin Model quickly became the most complicated, expensive and time-consuming research project ever undertaken by the Corps...

When Reybold sourced his original labor force, he handpicked POWs with knowledge of engineering and construction, specifically German engineers, whose home country had already embraced the benefits of hydraulics modeling. Repatriated after the war, the prisoners were surprisingly hard to replace. At the time, all river management works were funded by the districts that profited most directly from their development. Thus all funding (design, construction, future operation) for a model projected to visualize 41 percent of the United Stated as a single landscape had to be equitably divided among 15 districts in proportion to their river frontage. It wasn't until 1957 that direct congressional appropriations for the project were approved.


As water poured through the Missouri River section of the model, the resulting data were relayed directly to aid workers in Omaha and Council Bluffs, who were able to respond with brigades of civilians and sandbags to points where levees needed to be raised only slightly; areas predicted to flood dramatically were evacuated. In total the Mississippi River Basin Model prevented an estimated $65 million in damages.


The 1942 report noted that "provision would be made, however, for adding the remainder of the Mississippi River Basin at any time this might become desirable [the model stopped at Baton Rouge]," but the Army Corps went on to make 25 years of decisions about flood control here, and modeling the outflow of the Mississippi River never "became desirable."
USACE now uses computers for simulations, but those models miss the "presence" of the physical model, flawed though it may be.

Addendum: Aquadoc also blogged on this material.

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