Alabama's layered approach
2008 GCN Award winner: Geospatial system packages data for first responders but doesn't stop there<@VM>SIDEBAR: Team looked for military-grade geospatial tools
- By Patrick Marshall
- Oct 17, 2008
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND words, if you can find the
picture. That caveat is what gave birth to Virtual Alabama.
'Our state, like every state, spends hundreds of thousands
if not millions of dollars trying to capture imagery, either for
revenue or other purposes,' said Jim Walker, director of
Alabama's Department of Homeland Security.
Those images can come in handy to first responders, but they
were being collected by multiple agencies and weren't being
delivered into the right hands. 'When we had a natural
disaster, we couldn't find the imagery,' Walker said.
'So the governor said, 'Time out.'' Gov.
Bob Riley ordered Walker to find a solution.
Developed with seed money from the federal Homeland Security
Department, Virtual Alabama was launched in November 2007. The
state DHS team ' consisting of two state employees and two
employees on loan from the Army Space and Missile Defense Command
' built an application around Google Earth as its
visualization engine to deliver data and query tools to more than
1,200 state and local officials, from county sheriffs and assessors
to firefighters and health care providers.
For example, in the event of a major storm, agencies can monitor
traffic flow on evacuation routes, search for open shelters,
evaluate property and infrastructure damage, and locate stranded
survivors. 'Just think of the power of this information being
available on-the-fly as you make decisions if you're a public
official,' Walker said.
The system 'allows us to load our own imagery on our own
globe,' said Chris Johnson, director of the Geospatial
Training and Application Center at the Space and Rocket Center and
program manager for Virtual Alabama. It took about 14 months to
collect and process data from the state's 67 counties, she
Before Virtual Alabama, Walker said, disaster response consisted
largely of driving around to see what had been damaged and
estimating how much it would cost to fix it. Now, he said, things
happen more quickly and efficiently. 'We can click on a box
[on the map], 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.'
'I can layer anything on top of that [map] I want
to,' Johnson said. 'The location of gas stations, power
lines, schools. You name it, we can populate it. First responders
can take 3-D tools and model out buildings in their
And it's not just state and local. More than 35 federal
agencies also have access to Virtual Alabama.
Part of the trick to the successful implementation of Virtual
Alabama was selecting the right technology.
The critical choice, Walker said, was settling on the right
visualization platform. 'It had to be scalable, maintainable,
ready now and affordable,' he said. 'We settled on
Security was another factor in their decision to use Google
Earth. 'Everything is behind our firewall,' Johnson
said. 'Our world is completely separate from Google. Google
doesn't see our data or host it. There's a complete
A still bigger challenge was getting the right data.
'Initially, we set about to find out what kind of data we had
in the state,' Johnson said. 'That was quite a
challenge, because data resides in a lot of different places. We
worked with all 67 counties and the municipalities within those
counties to solicit their support in the way of data
The lure to participation: Virtual Alabama's leaders
promised that those who contributed data would get free access to
the site. 'There is a value proposition for the local and
county folks in government,' Johnson said. 'They share
their data in the system, and in turn, they can use the system for
their daily operations free of charge.'
Processing and distributing the data has become the team's
main work. 'We've been at this over two years, and from
the beginning, about 80 percent of this project is outreach,
working with individuals at different levels of government and
helping them not only understand the tools and how they operate but
also the data sharing and what data is useful to them and all the
security functions that go along with that,' he said.
Walker said it didn't take him long to realize that the
value of Virtual Alabama extended far beyond homeland security
concerns. 'We got to the point where we said this is bigger
than just homeland security,' he said. 'We can change
the way government operates.'
Virtual Alabama now has more than 3,400 users from about 1,100
local, state and federal agencies.
And other states are following suit. 'We have met with 19
additional states,' Johnson said. 'They stood up
Virtual Louisiana last summer. We're really enjoying the
relationship we have with them because it helps us learn how to
share data among our states. The technology is there to allow us to
connect to each other's globes so we can share information
The team at the Alabama Department of Homeland Security's
Virtual Alabama system did their homework on available technologies
before settling on Google Earth as its visualization engine.
'We'd been looking in the geospatial realm to take
those military-type technologies into the municipal sector even
prior to 9/11,' said Chris Johnson, program manager of
Virtual Alabama. 'We realized that there were applications in
the battlespace that would be very useful to day-to-day operations
in the municipal world.'
The big problem with the military applications was their cost,
which ran about $10,000 per seat, Johnson said.
The team created a due diligence panel of eight individuals.
'These were subject-matter experts from the federal
government, the state government, industry and others,'
The panel asked eight vendors, both civilian and military, to
showcase their products. 'We asked them all to come in and
told them they couldn't bring in' PowerPoint
presentations, she said.
'They needed to bring in their tools so that we can
evaluate them. We came to the conclusion that Google Earth was the
most appropriate application for what our requirements
'The business model was a big factor' in deciding
that Google Earth was the right fit, Johnson said. 'We had to
find a program that could not only be maintainable and scalable on
a large scale but also be sustainable from a funding
Another important factor was ease of use. 'It was also
very important that we had the ability to put this out to an
audience of people who are not geospatial specialists,' she