Carnegie Mellon University
January 18, 2019

O'Donnell Helps Empower Communities Around the World

By Robert Vickers

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing & Communications
  • 412-268-1151

You don't have to dig deep to figure out why Gabriel O'Donnell is committed to making the world a better place.

Growing up in Summit Township, a rural southwestern Pennsylvania community, O'Donnell has seen what the decline of the steel industry has done to once-thriving communities, but also how the rise of a local tech economy has lifted those same communities.

"I've literally lived through southwestern Pennsylvania's economic transition from predominantly manufacturing to predominantly a university, health care and tech-based economy," said O'Donnell, a principal research programmer at Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab.

"My father was and is a steelworker at a plant in Butler, and now I work as a software engineer at Carnegie Mellon University," he added. "I think that's allowed me to fully appreciate the awesome transformational possibilities that exist within southwestern Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh specifically."

O'Donnell's most transformational work thus far has come with EarthTime, a CREATE Lab website that enables users to view the entire planet — or just a small locality — to visualize the cumulative effects of a range of influences from climate change and air pollution to immigration and economic inequality.

EarthTime has become so popular that is now a go-to tool for global thought leaders who gather each year at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, seeking to make the world a better place.

O'Donnell set out to do his part to make the world a better place after he started his career in 2000 at the University of Pittsburgh. Working on an early computer guided peer collaborative coaching system for the U.S. Air Force, O'Donnell decided he wanted to find a job that did not have military applications. That desire led him to CREATE Lab in 2009, where he found a workplace that shared his ethical mooring.

"That's hard to do in the sciences, but it was important to me," O'Donnell said.

"The innovative way CREATE Lab empowers communities affords me that opportunity to make my immediate community and the community at large better in a way I don't think I'd be able to find in any other place," he added. "One of the real advantages to working at Carnegie Mellon is that we have such deep roots in our local community while being an institution of such international prestige that your work can touch people halfway around the world."

Some of O'Donnell's other work outside of EarthTime also has touched people halfway around the world. He proudly boasts of hosting a GigaPan web image of President Barack Obama's first inauguration address that was seen by more than 10 million people in a week.

"We were responsible for making sure that the server stayed up and that it was accessible and people could come and look at it, comment on it and share in this global experience," he said. "The first morning, what we did was look for people we knew in the crowd. I found Denzel Washington first. Another colleague found Oprah Winfrey. We were both just giddy. At that moment we should have known it was going to be huge."

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