Geo-spill: Tracking the oil muck by GIS

Federal and state officials have been sharing geospatial data to coordinate disaster response, a DHS official says

A Homeland Security Department program that allows emergency response officials from states and localities to more readily share geospatial data is helping officials coordinate their response to the BP oil spill, according to a DHS official.

State officials from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida have been using DHS’ Virtual USA program to share data related to the oil spill, according to David Boyd, director of the Command, Control and Interoperability Division in the department’s Science and Technology Directorate.

Federal officials from DHS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have also used Virtual USA in the response work, he added.

Boyd said the Virtual USA program that allows states share their geospatial data and metadata and create data mashups is being used to coordinate responses across states’ jurisdictional boundaries.

“What [states] are doing is coordinating their responses across [jurisdictional boundaries],” Boyd said. “Many of these wildlife areas cross state boundaries, so you’ve got to coordinate how the response is going to work.”

Boyd said historically the coordination would have been done over the telephone, but now officials can work with a common set of images and metadata. “There may still be some phone calls, but a lot more of it is now a lot easier to coordinate…it eliminates lots of confusion,” he said.


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The DHS-led national program was inspired by success that Alabama’s Homeland Security Department had in using information gathered at a local level to help first responders through that state’s program named Virtual Alabama. The federal department lists the program as a flagship initiative in its plans to increase DHS’ openness.

The Gulf Coast states are part of a group of southeastern states that have been testing technologies for Virtual USA, Boyd said. Five states in the Pacific Northwest have also started a pilot program, and six states in the Northeast just started a test program, Boyd added.

Boyd stressed that although Virtual USA allows increased sharing of the information, states and localities maintain ownership and control of their data. The program is based on existing systems that states already have in place, he said, describing Virtual USA as a “system of systems.”

Boyd made the comments at the Open Government and Innovations Conference in Washington. The conference is sponsored by 1105 Media, Federal Computer Week’s parent organization.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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