August 13, 2009 By Corey McKenna
On March 1, 2007, a tornado ripped through Enterprise, Ala., killing eight students and severely damaging Enterprise High School. The area received a historically quick federal disaster declaration just two days later because before-and-after imagery was available thanks to Virtual Alabama, an implementation of Google Earth that contains government-owned data.
In March 2009, Virtual Alabama was used to track a shooting spree in Geneva County that killed 10 people and also resulted in the perpetrator's death. Investigators within the governor's crisis command center used Virtual Alabama to follow the shootings as they occurred, including elements such as the time it took the shooter to travel from one location to another, the distance covered and the fatalities' identities. With that information, the investigators could draw comparisons as they investigated the crime. Simultaneously they shared that information with the mobile command center that deployed to the county.
These are just two examples of Virtual Alabama's utility. The system improves disaster response through better data sharing and allows city, county and state agencies to collaborate in innovative ways. Before Virtual Alabama, it took the state days, if not weeks, to prepare disaster declarations -- and they weren't always the most accurate. With Virtual Alabama, the state can look at irrefutable evidence of damage and quickly determine its extent.
The impetus for the application came after rains from 2005's Hurricane Katrina drenched Alabama. Having seen more than 450 tornadoes strike the state during his time in office, Gov. Bob Riley turned to state Homeland Security Director Jim Walker with two simple but important questions: How was he going to assess the damage and apply for federal aid if he didn't know what the communities looked like before the storm? And shouldn't all that imagery be stored in one place?
Walker's answer to the governor's challenge was to build Virtual Alabama using locally owned imagery on a secure, permission-based Google Enterprise platform. Getting started was relatively inexpensive: The state spent less than $150,000 for the software licenses and hardware.
The system contains location data for sewer, water and power lines; radio towers; police cruisers; fire hydrants; building schematics; sex offenders' addresses; approved landing zones for medical helicopters; inventories of hospitals and cached medical supplies, such as respirators; evacuation routes; shelters; land-ownership records; and assessed property values.
Some of the data stitched into Virtual Alabama is sensitive, like floor plans for public buildings. For that reason, even though the data is potentially available to anyone at any level of government, access control is retained by the custodial owner of that information and protected by that agency's security protocols. As needed, first responders -- such as SWAT teams, bomb squads and firefighters -- can request access to the information. "If the custodial owner stays in full control of the data, then [he or she has] no fear of it being breached because it's inside their firewall," said Chris Johnson, Virtual Alabama program manager and vice president of geospatial technologies for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Virtual Alabama's platform provides access to the same technology that's behind Google Earth, except it's accessible only to government employees with the proper permissions. "We do this on our own servers behind our firewalls, and we serve it to whoever we need to serve it to, and it has no interaction ... with [Google's] globe," Johnson said.
If a situation changes quickly, then access can widen or constrict depending on the circumstances. "If at 3:00 in the morning, the school administrator needs to widen that loop to include the sheriff, police chief, the bomb squad and whomever else, then she has full control through her IT staff to do that," Johnson said. Once permission is granted, the