Buzz of the Week: Wowed by Virtual Alabama

Alabama has created an application that users can tailor to meet their homeland security needs

It is difficult these days to be really wowed by an application. We have seen so much, we often expect the unexpected.

Then along comes Virtual Alabama.

We had read some stories about this system, which the Alabama Department of Homeland Security created in 2007, but when we saw it for ourselves last week, we realized words don’t do it justice.

Virtual Alabama, at its heart, is a mash-up — a program that pulls data from various places and presents it in a very user-friendly display. In this case, the system is based on Google Earth. It starts with a map and then it overlays the map with all types of data.

So when tornadoes struck Alabama earlier this year, officials used the system to view the damage, even comparing before and after images. Officials also were able to pull in data that showed the location of potentially hazardous materials that might have been disturbed by the tornadoes.

Consider how the system might help in an event such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Were that to happen at the University of Alabama, state officials could draw from one database to get schematics on the buildings and then another for class schedules so that they would know which classrooms were in use. Finally, they could use Virtual Alabama to tap into images from cameras in the building.

Sound like something out of the TV show “24”? Well, actually it is — and it is real and being used today. Better yet, it did not cost a fortune. Virtual Alabama was developed in less than two years for less than $1 million by a team of four people.

Essentially, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security has a homeland security version of Facebook — a platform that individuals can use to create their own applications depending on what the users need.

Talk about collaboration magic — and incredibly empowering. 


#2: Nonperforming contracts
Years after performance-based contracting became a significant issue, it’s still a problem.

At a hearing last week, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Homeland Security Department does not have enough experienced procurement employees to properly handle those contracts.

Thompson pointed to the Coast Guard’s Deepwater fleet modernization program as an example of a DHS performance-based program gone wrong. The Coast Guard, a component of DHS, spent more
than $1 billion and still has sub-standard vessels, he said.

Heckuva job.

#3: Preventing e-jihad
Extremist groups are using the Internet to recruit, communicate with and train terrorists, yet the government lacks a coordinated communications strategy to combat it, according to a report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat” states that “immense caches of information and propaganda are available online” and raises questions about what an appropriate plan to deal with the threat should entail.

The long-term goal of the strategy should be to discredit extremist ideology, said Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a statement. “Federal, state and local officials, as well as Muslim American community and religious leaders and other private-sector actors, must all play a prominent role in discrediting the terrorist message,” they wrote.

#4: What price clearances?
Uncertain funding might be the biggest hurdle to reforming the government’s security clearance system, said Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management
There are plans to accelerate the processing of clearance applications, but they can’t make a difference if there’s no budget to implement them. Johnson said the planners — and he is one of them — can help by planning wisely to minimize costs.

The proposed clearance reform plan, which OMB sent to President Bush April 30, leans heavily on information technology solutions such as online applications and automated records checks and scoring systems.

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