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FCW Insider: Virtual Alabama: The magic of collaboration

These days, it is difficult to get surprised and excited about technology. We've seen so much, and so many things just seem to be iterative of things we've seen before. This afternoon, I had the opportunity to to see a little bit of magic. It is a program called Virtual Alabama. It is remarkable because those of us ego-centric coasties needlessly discount parts of the country. So I was thrilled to see Virtual Alabama not only because it is remarkable but because it comes from a place that nobody would expect.

Virtual Alabama is an application that runs on Google Earth. Without discounting what they have accomplished, it is essentially an advanced mash-up. Virtual Alabama takes Google Earth and overlays all kinds of data over the map. So imagine if there was a horrible incident like the one at Virgina Tech last year where a mad gunman massacred scores of people. Virtual Alabama would give authorities all sorts of information to deal with the situation. Pulling on data from various locations -- mashing it up on a single platform. For example, in the school situation, if there was a gunman at the University of Alabama, authorities could tap into Virtual Alabama and get schematics on the buildings. Furthermore, they could find out what classes would be held at that time so they would know what classrooms were being used at that particular point in time. Finally, they could use Virtual Alabama to tap into cameras in the building.

Sound like something out of the TV show 24? Well, actually it is -- and it is real -- and it is being used today.

The team that created this remarkable program was at the National Academy of Public Administration this afternoon giving an amazing demonstration. (NAPA, of course, has created The Collaboration Project, which focuses on making collaboration real. FCW profiled The Collaboration Project earlier this year. NAPA's Collaboration Project's Web site will go live in the next few days. I assume they will post it on NAPA's Collaboration Project Web site.)

NAPA will post video from the presentation soon. I'll post it when they do.

I also have to mention that the officials from Virtual Alabama will be at 1105 GovInfo's Government Leadership Summit, formerly known as the CIO Summit, which will be held down in Williamsburg, Va. on June 1-3. I can't wait to get more information...and hear the discussion.

The school example is only one use of this program. Here is another school example. Alabama is in tornado country. We remember the tornado that ripped through Enterprise High School, killing several students. Virtual Alabama was able get updated footage and they could show amazing before and after shots. "I've got irrefutable proof of the damage," said Jim Walker, dire tor of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. But Virtual Alabama also gives authorities an idea of where fire hydrants are, for example.

Walker said that there were a few challenges. One was getting all data -- the photographs of the entire state. Most of that data came from Alabama counties, but the state had to convince the counties it was in their interest.

The other interesting point -- one of the big hurdles for the program has actually been that it didn't cost enough. The state developed this program with four people and for about $150,000 in software. There have been some additional costs -- the state has had to invest in additional servers because the nearly 2,700 people using the system...well, they're using it.

It was also developed relatively quickly. Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, and Alabama was impacted by Katrina. The governor said that he wanted the state to be better prepared. In July 2006, the state purchased an enterprise license for Google Earth, and on Nov. 1, 2007, they launched the system with data from the state's 67 counties.

Walker said that they believe they have only started to tap into the powers of Virtual Alabama -- that there are many other applications. And I have only given you a taste of them.

FCW will have more on this program in the near future. FCW reporter Ben Bain is going to be covering more on Virtual Alabama.

In the middle of the program, I sent a text to a friend saying, "This is magic."

Really remarkable...and powerful...and empowering.

Posted by Christopher J. Dorobek on May 07, 2008 at 12:17 PM


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