October 31, 2008 By Corey McKenna
Photo: Alabama Homeland Security Director James Walker
Alabama has seen 451 tornadoes since Governor Bob Riley's inauguration. Furthermore the state was deluged with rains from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That's when Gov. Riley turned to his homeland security director James Walker with a challenge. Riley asked Walker how was he going to apply for federal assistance if he didn't know what the affected area looked like before the hurricane. And shouldn't the state have that imagery in an easily accessible place and not just a picture of the aftermath?
That's when Walker went for a solution that would allow geospatial data to be stored on a common platform and easily shared and accessible to the state Department of Homeland Security so the governor could justify his request for assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He thought he might find it in government, but to no avail. So he turned to the private sector and eventually found it at Google, Walker told attendees of a lunch session Oct 30th at the Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness conference in Chicago.
Selling the Mash Up
The data Walker needed resided in agencies across the state, and often in counties and cities. And, as often happens, those agencies were reluctant to give up their data without something in return. They had to be convinced that they would be able to access their data on a statewide platform. Another concern they had was this: Once they gave up the data, who was going to tell them what they could and could not do with it? The result is a common operating platform that provides free layered geospatial data from agencies across the state and that allows all areas of government to do their jobs better. And the best part? The state doesn't tell the agencies how to use the information. And that, says Walker, is spurring some innovative applications.
Therein lies the truly empowering aspect of Virtual Alabama; because what started out as a homeland security/emergency management damage assessment tool, has become a facilitator for other areas of government throughout the state. The system currently has about 4,000 users across 1,100 agencies, Walker said. Virtual Alabama has also become a reason to share information to give people such as bomb technicians and principals the tools to keep citizens safe. The potluck approach to this application means that the Civil Air Patrol can fly around and take pictures; firefighters can model buildings in their spare time at the station house; police can plot the location of a sex offender in relation to a school, daycare center or other area where children are. Geospatial data from Virtual Alabama can also be used for recruiting companies and identifying property owners. Virtual Alabama can even show the user the real-time location of all the forest fires burning across the country, as Walker demonstrated during the session.
Public Safety and Emergency Management
Police officers, and firefighters and others involved in responding to an emergency or natural disaster have benefited greatly from this system. For example, the location of every radio tower in Alabama is plotted on a map that also shows how much coverage they provide. And Virtual Alabama provides commanders with the real-time location of each of the patrol cars and officers under his or her control.
These shared data mash-ups have become even more important in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as the frequency of natural disasters and number of incidents occurring at the same time across the country has increased. With first responders taxed the way they are in responding to major incidents, mutual aid becomes more important than ever. And Virtual Alabama provides first responder who have come to the aid of Alabama with the tools (such as building schematics and disaster