Web 2.0 and Homeland Security: States/DHS Launch Virtual USA
In an article entitled “Officials Eye a Geospatial ‘Virtual USA’”, Federal Computer Week reported on a very exciting and possibly game-changing initiative that was inaugurated in early February in Mobile Alabama. To quote from the beginning of the article:
” 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….”
Full disclosure here – I am proud to say that my company is part of the team involved in this initiative, and frankly it is one of the most exciting things I have been involved in my years working with the public safety community. The reason for the excitement is twofold:
1. This is a state and local driven initiative. It is not something that was cooked up in bowels of a federal agency and exported to the state and local community. Instead, it began as the vision of Alabama Homeland Security Director, Jim Walker, after seeing the power of the Virtual Alabama tool that he and his team created. It was Walker who saw the urgent need for creating a regional version of Virtual Alabama in order to help the Southeast prepare for the hurricanes and other natural disasters they face every year.
2. It is the first large scale project to apply Web 2.0 technologies and business models to the significant benefit of the state and local community. Without going into too much detail here (because you can get it from the attached White Paper), it is my belief that Web 2.0 has the potential to enable seamless interoperable communications of voice, data and imagery among local jurisdictions, states, regions and the country. There are two reasons for this:
a. First, it uses a standards based open-architecture approach which enables users to integrate disparate data sources seamlessly -so long as they are using the same standards. Note that one thing the articles and podcasts got wrong is that the Regional Pilot does not depend upon all parties using Google Earth Enterprise for its platform. It is technology agnostic. The exciting part of the pilot is the ability to integrate the platforms regardless of whether they are using Google, ESRI (as in the case of Virginia’s VIPER program), or something else entirely – as long as they are using the same standards.
b. Second, the business model for Web 2.0 applications makes it easy and cost effective for states to implement. The enterprise license (in perpetuity) for Google Earth Enterprise for Virtual Alabama was only $150,000, which was unheard of at the time for software providers. Make no mistake, a lot of other work went into making Virtual Alabama successful, and there was a cost associated with that. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the license cost is a revolutionary development.
As I said, this is an exciting development. Now let’s hope the federal government continues to support this effort, because it is something that can save lives.