Long arm of virtual Alabama

State's homeland security agency builds a far-reaching geospatial database

State and federal agencies continue to extend the boundaries of geospatial applications and databases, and Virtual Alabama is one of the most recent examples.

Launched in November 2007 by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security, the project uses Google Earth as its visualization engine and delivers data and query tools to more than 1,200 state and local officials, from county sheriffs and assessors to firefighters and health care providers.

And it's not just state and local. More than 35 federal agencies also have access to Virtual Alabama.

Jim Walker, director of the state's Department of Homeland Security, said once the project was up and running, convincing state agencies of its value was no problem.

'We have our share of disasters in Alabama,' Walker said May 7 in Washington. When a 2007 tornado struck Enterprise High School killing eight students and causing widespread damage, officials used Virtual Alabama to assess the damage and deliver assistance. 'We had the imagery of what Enterprise High School looked like before the tornado. After the tornado, we had the Civil Air Patrol fly over and take new pictures. So I've got irrefutable proof of the damage.'

Walker added that before Virtual Alabama, disaster response happened differently. 'Bubba drives around in his pickup truck and says, 'Yep, that's tore up pretty bad. Probably going to cost'I don't know'$75,000 to fix that.' ' Now, he said, things happen more quickly and efficiently. 'We can click on a box, tell you who owns the house and what it was appraised for. Now we're able to have accurate disaster declarations pushed up to [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] within days or hours as opposed to weeks. We don't have to have people living in FEMA trailers forever. That makes a pretty compelling argument for us.'

But how do agencies get such projects up and running? Walker offered two pieces of advice.

First, call the federal Homeland Security Department. DHS has provided all the Alabama project's funding to date, and it is the source of many other state and joint-jurisdiction geospatial projects.

Second, projects such as Virtual Alabama are always hungry for data, especially in their early stages. And one of the best ways to get data from other local agencies is a form of enlightened bribery, Walker said.

'We determined very quickly that the best imagery available in Alabama was in either state agencies or in county revenue departments because they fly and take a picture of your house to reassess it,' Walker said. 'So we go to the revenue folks, and I say, 'I'm the Homeland Security director, and I'd like your imagery.' And they say, 'I'm not giving you my imagery. I paid a million dollars for this imagery.' They don't want to give it to anybody because they assume that you have some sort of financial gain after they've spent this money. So how do we solve this problem?'

Walker's strategy was to do an end around by going to county sheriffs. 'The typical Alabama sheriff carries a pretty big stick in his county,' Walker said. 'He can get just about anything he wants. So we bring the sheriffs together and say, 'OK, sheriffs, if we had your county's imagery, these are the kinds of things we [could] give you for free,' ' he continued.

'And we start talking about things like sex offenders,' Walker said. '[We say,] 'There's an open registry. You can go online to determine who the sex offenders are in your neighborhood.

But what I can do is take your imagery, and I can populate them in your county. We can put them [on the map]. You can click on their pictures and see what they were charged with. But it's not just that, sheriff. We can take tools and draw a 1,000-foot circle around his house. And then we layer on top of that schools, day care centers, school bus stops. And you know that if one of those things falls within the circle, he has violated his parole.' Sheriff says, 'Wow, that's pretty strong. I didn't realize that tools like that existed.' '

That's the bait. Now the hook: Walker offered to give the sheriffs free access to the data on one condition: 'You've got to get me your county data.' So, Walker said, 'the sheriff goes to the revenue commissioner and says, 'I'll tell you what: You're going to get a ticket every day if you don't give the Homeland Security director the imagery from our county.' '

Whatever works.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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