Portal serves up geospatial data

PlanGraphics Inc. has taken steps to give emergency workers responding to accidents, disasters or terrorist attacks real-time access to the information they need to make more effective decisions.

The Frankfort, Ky.-based company has enhanced its geospatial technology and services to enable emergency workers to share and retrieve critical information via a Web portal. Spatial Templates for Emergency Preparedness, or STEPs, gleans geographic information system (GIS) data from disparate databases and makes it available via an information portal. Right now, emergency workers don't receive the full breadth of available critical data, which could influence their decisions, company officials said.

"By designing [data] in a portal environment, it encourages organizations to use it day in, day out," said John Antenucci, PlanGraphics' president and chief executive officer. "So when you do get into a stressed environment, it all seems very natural."

GIS data is basically composed of static historical records or imagery, which still exist in silos, company officials said. When responding to a crisis, emergency workers using computerized maps may be no better off than they are using paper ones, especially if they can't import or integrate other crucial information. They may also need other datasets they may not know exist or are unable to import because of the lack of systems interoperability.

"GIS falls somewhere closer to the paper map end," said Bruce Goldsmith, vice president of strategic relationships at PlanGraphics. "What STEPs does is add the real-time aspect of using a map-based information system as the basis of your decision. The database is an operational or transactional world compared to a GIS being a static, primarily file-based world."

The company also developed STEPs to make it easier to overcome a bigger problem: the reluctance of agencies to exchange their data with others.

"One of the major principles of the whole thing is that no one gives ownership of their data, [thus] not creating a separate dataset that is going to be maintained or managed by anyone else," Goldsmith said. "What we are going to do is set up procedures that periodically will migrate data from where it might sit in some localized department into a centralized repository, and then be able to serve it back out to a broader user community."

STEPs is based on New York City's GIS, which has been lauded for its diverse array of presentable information, Goldsmith said. But STEPs extends that functionality to incorporate other data types, and it addresses erroneous, inaccurate and duplicated data.

Based on an open-architecture platform, STEPs integrates historical imagery, computer-aided design (CAD) drawings, video imagery, Global Positioning System locations, telemetry, public building sites and other data. The information is stored in an Oracle Corp. 9i database, which is a key component of the system.

"The Oracle 9i database, through our spatial capability, has the ability to manage geographic data directly in the database so you can ask spatial questions of the database," said Steve Cooperman, vice president of Oracle Homeland Security Solutions. "You can integrate both spatial data with traditional tabular and other multimedia data types. So it gives a large enterprise — an enterprise now being first responders, FBI, CIA, military — the ability to all tap into the same geographic data resource."

Cooperman said that although homeland security is largely a cultural challenge in terms of sharing information, geographic data in particular is still a technological challenge.

"It's still not an easy thing to do," he said. "You have data that comes in many proprietary formats. You need knowledge of how to get that into a common formal format, [and] integrating location or spatial technology with other applications is not an easy thing to do."

For example, if a gas pipeline ruptures, emergency workers could use STEPs to view a CAD drawing of the jurisdiction and represent the event with an icon. Clicking the icon would display the incident's exact location. Data such as locations of gas valves, commercial buildings and schools can be overlaid on the map. Users can drill down to see photos of parking lots or a building's floor plans from different directions. They may even get diagrams and instructions on how to repair a rupture without having to call around.

STEPs enables the emergency management sector to provide a collaborative response by working on a Web-based "geographic whiteboard" or, in military terms, a "digital battle space," Goldsmith said. So, fire and police officials looking at the same portal from different locations can communicate with one another on setting up roadblocks or triage centers in real time and incorporate updated information.

In addition to Oracle, PlanGraphics has partnered with other companies to offer more features within STEPs. They include E Team Inc. and Ship Analytics International Inc., both of which provide text-based communication through incident command or crisis management systems; Hansen Information Technologies for e-government and asset management applications; Skyline Software Systems Inc. for 3-D high-resolution streaming imagery; and Surfsimple Inc., which has technology that converts text messages into voice messages and transmits then at a rate of 250,000 messages per hour.

PlanGraphics officials said state and local governments have expressed a great deal of interest, and the system has also been demonstrated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But Goldsmith said STEPs isn't something you can fit on a CD-ROM, stick it in a drive and solve the problem. "It's people who understand the procedures in the data itself, not necessarily software. [It's people] talking to these various departments to get them to release the data and bring it into a bigger system," he said. "So, it's not a pure technology play. It's a combination of technology and services."

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Web access

PlanGraphics Inc.'s Spatial Templates for Emergency Preparedness, or STEPs, gathers geospatial data from disparate databases and makes it available via a web portal for emergency workers.

Based on an open-architecture platform, STEPs integrates historical imagery, computer-aided design drawings, video imagery, Global Positioning System locations, telemetry and public building sites. The information is stored in an Oracle Corp. 9i database, where it is available to first responders.

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