New York builds a spatial data library

Map-based system will let emergency officials search for resources.

New York State Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination

New York officials plan to deploy a map-based system later this year that could help emergency officials quickly search for needed resources and experts during natural disasters or man-made incidents.

For example, if authorized state emergency officials needed to find the nearest hospital in an area where an incident occurred, they could securely log onto the Web-based system and type in their query. Then the state's system would return a list of responses in ranked order, similar to how the Google search engine works.

The New York system would contain a wide range of data on schools, bridges, roads, utilities and other critical infrastructures, as well as information culled from the private sector. It will be designed for users who may not be experienced with geographic information system applications.

Emergency operations officials "don't care how pretty the map is. They don't care if they get a map sometimes," said Bruce Oswald, assistant director and chief information officer with the state's Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination (CSCIC), which is overseeing the project. They may just want "a list of the hospitals and the phone numbers of the people we have to call, the schools where we have to evacuate kids or the shelters we have to set up or whatever."

State officials have been planning and developing the system — which they have dubbed the Critical Infrastructure Response Information System — for the past two years. They said New York might be one of the first states to construct such a system for emergency response.

Last spring, they conducted a pilot project to test the concept within the agency. Working with ESRI, a leading GIS company, they developed a Web browser-based application and a spatial data warehouse that stores disparate data from numerous government and private-sector sources.

Something innovative

However, officials had to find a different way of collecting and standardizing the enormous amount of information on critical infrastructure, resources and personnel they wanted in the system. Traditionally, data warehouse developers insist that collected data be "normalized," or forced into a particular schema.

"New York state is doing something innovative on that," said Mike Wiley, an executive consultant with PlanGraphics, the Kentucky-based GIS company that is assisting the state. "They're not normalizing the data. They're basically saying, 'Give us your data however you want. We're going to store it that way as well. We might have 70 different ways to reference the ZIP code, but we don't really care. We're not going to force your schema into something.'"

Tom Henderson, a program coordinator at CSCIC, said it wasn't realistic to force state agencies, local governments and private entities — which have invested time, effort and money to create their own databases — to normalize their data for the statewide system. State officials also didn't have the personnel or funds to undertake such an effort.

Instead, they decided to build a data catalog with an associated thesaurus, essentially transforming the spatial data warehouse into a spatial data library, which officials say is a more apt description.

"In other words, that becomes the switchyard," Henderson said. "If one source calls storage tanks 'oil storage tanks' and another source calls them 'fuel storage tanks' or 'fuel storage' or some other way that they have identified those in their particular database, we would have a way of cross-referencing those terms through the data catalog and the thesaurus and allow the matching to take place there."

Oswald said he initially thought they would create 75 datasets, but his staff has keyed in about 800 so far. There are millions of records in the system, including data collected from neighboring states and Canada.

PlanGraphics was recently awarded a nine-month, $1.75 million contract to develop a secure Web-based module to help participating agencies and governments load and update their critical infrastructure datasets. The company will also develop a module that will enable users to conduct map-based queries in addition to natural-language queries.

State officials said they could share the data catalog and thesaurus' framework — which is the heart of the system — with other states. But those governments must still invest the time and effort to understand the common terms for their specific data elements, Henderson said.

"That work has no shortcut to it," he said. "But what we're saying is the large majority of that effort is done upfront. And then, as datasets are added, it becomes an incremental process to expand out from there once you get over that initial hump."

Building a spatial data warehouse

New York State's Critical Infrastructure Response Information System includes a spatial data warehouse or library, a data catalog and a thesaurus.

It is being built using various technologies, including:

* ESRI's ArcIMS, which provides geographic data and services via the Web.

* ESRI's ArcSDE, which is server software for accessing massive geographic databases stored in relational database management systems.

* Safe Software's Feature Manipulation Engine and SpatialDirect products.

* Oracle databases.

* Sun Microsystems' Java, JavaServer Pages and JavaBeans.

Developers will create a series of applications to view, query and administer the spatial data library, said Mike Wiley, an executive consultant at PlanGraphics, which is assisting state officials with the new system.

Wiley said Safe Software's products — which can read many, if not all, spatial data formats — will convert the data into a common format and store it in an ArcSDE and Oracle repository. ArcIMS will serve as the map-rendering engine.

— Dibya Sarkar

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