Alabama puts mashups to work

Getting data together

Alabama homeland security officials say Virtual Alabama will benefit many sectors and agencies.

Those benefits are expected to include:
Common operating picture and situational awareness.

Critical infrastructure mapping.

Vehicle and asset tracking.

Real-time sensor feeds.

Visualization of risks.

— Ben Bain

If stars fell on Alabama, as the old jazz standard recounts, first responders would know exactly where they landed thanks to a new virtual version of the state.

Virtual Alabama, created by the state’s Homeland Security Department, uses Google’s Earth Enterprise software to generate 3-D representations of geospatial and related data to help first responders and other government officials analyze complex situations in an intuitive fashion.

The system enables authorities to create data mashups by quickly pulling together information from an array of sources across the state’s 67 counties, using one data layer or another, depending on the situation.

For example, in a natural disaster, authorities might need maps that show the location of utilities and water, power and gas lines. Later, they might need to pull up high-resolution aerial photos and information on property values in the region. In other cases, they might pull in video from cameras along a highway or in schools.

And although stars falling on Alabama are only metaphorical, tornados and hurricanes are real threats. In such events, state officials need quick access to geospatial data so they can plan and coordinate their responses.

Officials also can use geospatial information to perform disaster assessments or prepare for disaster recovery. Virtual Alabama has additional uses in law enforcement investigations and training.

“This has just really been a mass collaboration,” said Chris Johnson, Virtual Alabama’s project manager and vice president of geospatial technologies at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama.
That’s collaboration of the most grass-roots kind.

Counties statewide gathered and contributed complete sets of high-resolution aerial photographs and geospatial data at their own expense, trusting that pooling data on every nook and cranny from Mobile to Athens would pay off.

Johnson and Jim Walker, Alabama’s homeland security director, went county to county to convince local authorities that the project would be worthwhile — and judging from initial results, the counties have gotten their money’s worth.

The complete set of data would be worth $40 million if sold in the private sector, Johnson said.

Walker’s department paid about $150,000 for the Google Earth Enterprise software, which enabled them to cull the data and make it useful. The state agency received grants from the federal Homeland Security Department to purchase Google Earth Fusion and Server software and some hardware.

“It’s very inexpensive, and there is not a single homeland security director in the country that can’t afford it,” Walker said. “Everybody can afford it, but what’s important is that you own it.

“You are not tied to the appropriations of the federal government for new products or tools,” he added. “This is something that you can do and manage to benefit your state without a lot of outside interference.”
States already have a significant investment in geospatial data, said Rob Painter, senior federal manager at Google. Google Earth simply helps them integrate and visualize the data so it’s easier to
analyze.

Virtual Alabama is “a great model when you think about information sharing in government and wanting to break the stovepipes,” Painter said, adding that Google Earth Enterprise users do not have to come back and buy another license every time they want to grant access to a different partnering agency.

More than 35 Alabama state agencies and 35 federal agencies already have access to the program.
Other states have also seen that value — the Virtual Alabama team has given presentations to 15 other states, and Louisiana has created a similar resource.

The federal DHS is interested and is working with Alabama’s team to d evelop a pilot program on a national scale, a DHS spokeswoman said.

Johnson said that as the potential value of the project became clear, the team saw an opportunity to make Virtual Alabama a case study in collaboration, providing other states with best practices and showing them possibilities.

“If Alabama can do it, anyone else can do it,” Johnson said.

Walker, speaking at a May 7 event sponsored by  the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), said that although he is glad DHS is interested in the project, he wishes the department would move more quickly to adopt the technology. 

Frank DiGiammarino, vice president of strategic initiatives at NAPA, said Virtual Alabama demonstrates how quickly and easily people can use Web 2.0 collaboration tools.

“We look at it as kind of frame-bending event,” he said. “When you see enterprise Alabama, you’ve really seen an Enterprise 2.0 solution.”

Walker said he believes the state is using only about 10 percent of the technology’s capability. More could be done in the areas of analytics and modeling.

Johnson said the Virtual Alabama team is focused on how to make the benefits of visualization available to people in the field.

Walker added that because disasters are by nature a local problem first, empowering frontline officers is important.

“99 percent of the heavy lifting in this country is done outside the Beltway,” he added. “There are good ideas that can actually work that aren’t developed inside the Beltway.”

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