Officials eye a geospatial 'Virtual USA'

Federal and state authorities are collaborating on a project that would allow state and local caches of geospatial data to be interoperable and more useful with the goal of creating a "Virtual USA" for emergency response purposes.

The Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate recently sponsored a first meeting where officials from several Southern states discussed their efforts to manage and use geospatial data and how they could share it with each other. Officials say the goal is to make local- and state-owned geospatial data interoperable and usable across jurisdictions, with non-federal authorities maintaining control over the data and deciding what data to share.

The program was inspired by the success that Alabama had in using information gathered at a local level to aid first responders. The recent meeting was hosted by Alabama’s Homeland Security Department, which created Virtual Alabama. That is a system built on Google Earth Enterprise software that allows authorities to create data mashups by quickly pulling together information from an array of sources across the state’s 67 counties and make it available to first responders. 

David Boyd, director of DHS Science and Technology’s Command, Control and Interoperability Division, said the idea of a "Virtual USA" is to make data usable regardless of platform or software. He said the project's name may change as it progresses. 

“What Virtual USA does is go beyond any single platform and says to the states basically we don’t care what platform you use; what we care about is working with you to develop the technology and the mechanisms required to allow that information to be shared across platforms,” he said. “We want to create what amounts to capabilities that counties can use, that states can use, that in an emergency the nation can use, that is essentially platform and application agnostic.”

Jim Walker, Alabama’s homeland security director, said his team approached Boyd by saying “we don’t know when or where the next terrorist attack will come from, but we can almost guarantee that there is going to be a hurricane at some point in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The states represented at the recent meeting in Mobile, Ala. included Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.

“The reason why we’ve been successful and the reason why Louisiana and other states have been successful is it’s the bottoms-up approach,” Walker said, speaking of individual states' efforts to mash up local geospatial data. Walker added his experience with Virtual Alabama has taught him that the best imagery and photography is at the local level.

Boyd said DHS also advocates the bottoms-up approach, adding that it would be very expensive for the federal government to compile the data for a mapping system while states and localities already maintain the data for their own purposes.

“It’s not like we’re going to build a national system, what we’re looking to do here is to create a national system of systems exactly as we have been doing with interoperable communications so that disparate systems can communicate with each other even though the basic application, the basic platform may be different,” Boyd said.

Walker said during the recent meeting state representatives agreed to form groups to focus on what type of information should be shared and about how to respect states’ sovereignty in the process.

Boyd said officials are working on creating a pilot program for states on the Gulf Coast and in Southeast region to show that multiple states can participate, regardless of platform. He said that would serve as a real world laboratory for the project.

“In our experience, it’s not primarily the technology that’s the deciding issue," he said. "The fundamental issue and the thing that takes the greatest amount of time…is getting everybody to agree on what the rules are going to be and how it is they’re going to go about cooperating. At the end of the day, it’s the human component that’s the principal and most difficult driver.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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