How NOAA quickly developed an in-depth view of gulf oil spill

Geospatial Platform, with 600 data layers from multiple sources, provides a cross-agency template

2010 GCN AwardsWhen the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon undersea oil well sent millions of gallons of oil spewing from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico April 20, the various responding agencies were pretty well set up to coordinate their response. But getting information to the public and scientific community was another matter.

That’s when Joseph Klimavicz, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s CIO, stepped in. 

“We had this ERMA application that had been developed about a year ago with the University of New Hampshire,” said Klimavicz, referring to the Environmental Response Management Application, a Web-based geospatial tool designed to support interagency data sharing and Really Simple Syndication data feeds. “It supported the emergency response community. It was liked so much on the emergency response side, we said, ‘We have to move this to the public side.’ ”

Because the application was already designed, the biggest hurdle in making it — along with selected datasets — available to the public was securing the approval of all the agencies and departments involved.

NOAA Geospatial Platform

NOAA CIO Joseph Klimavicz, right, with Chi Kang.

Given the urgency of getting information about spreading oil, Klimavicz asked for a special meeting of the executive board of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), the lead interagency committee that promotes the coordinated development, use and sharing of federal geospatial data.

“I explained to them what I wanted to do, and they bought into it,” Klimavicz said. Next, he went to the White House and Office of Management and Budget to make sure they were on board. “I got them to agree that this would be a good first step,” he added.

The next task was to define and secure agreements from the agencies that would be providing data. NOAA developed processes to ensure the security of the data and update and ensure the quality of the data.

“In a week or two, I got the community to agree that we’d take that application and use it as a starting point for the public site,” Klimavicz said.

Funding, which is a challenge for many new projects, was not a major issue for Klimavicz and his team. “We’ve got a pretty robust data farm at NOAA already that’s stressed on a regular basis, with hurricanes and snowstorms and all, so the infrastructure was in place, and the application didn’t cost us anything,” he said. It took only an estimated $480,000 in outlays to get the Geospatial Platform up and running.
The open-source ERMA application, which uses Google Maps for its map layers, was expanded to accommodate the 600 different data layers, many of which are updated in real time, that are included in the Geospatial Platform.

The Geospatial Platform allows the public to search and display data about:

  • Oil spill trajectories near the shore.
  • Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team results.
  • Satellite interpretations for potential oil footprints.
  • Field photos.
  • Wildlife observations.
  • Closures of fisheries in federal and state waters.
  • Shoreline flight imagery from NOAA, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Navigational caution area for mariners.
  • Data buoys.
  • Current environmental conditions.
  • Predicated environmental conditions.
  • Location of research and response vessels.
  • Related data, such as seafood safety, EPA monitoring and subsurface monitoring analytical chemistry.

The data is updated twice a day.

One day in early June, when the Geospatial Platform was launched, the public site received 3.5 million hits. Since then, it has had more than 4.8 million visitors. Although the number of daily visitors has fallen as the attention to the spill has waned, Klimavicz said, the site is still popular. “It’s continuing to get significant hits and use,” he said. “The number of visitors has gone down, but the dwell time has gone way up.”

Daniel Cotter, chief technology officer of the Homeland Security Department, thought so highly of the Geospatial Platform that he nominated it for this GCN award.

Capt. Jim Cash of the Coast Guard agreed. “It allowed us to quickly communicate our story of the effort that was under way,” Cash said of the platform. “It’s been very effective.”

Cash said ERMA was also very effective for agency-to-agency communications. “We were able to put in all of our daily flight plans, all of the satellite estimates of where we expected oil, and the operational areas of our task force,” he said. “ERMA was used every day to brief the unified area command and the incident command post leadership.”

“This was one of the best examples of interagency cooperation I’ve seen in my career,” Cash added. “The initiative that NOAA’s CIO and his technology team provided to step up to the plate and offer the use of ERMA and then all of the agencies that then agreed to move their data into that single common operational picture was an incredible success. It’s a best practice that we need to follow in incidents in the future.”

Indeed, Klimavicz, a member of FGDC's executive board, said the project is the first milestone in a geospatial platform modernization road map for agencies across government.

The Geospatial Platform/ERMA tool has already been integrated with DHS' Homeland Security Information Network to support all homeland security missions.

“Every week we add capability — new features and new data layers,” Klimavicz said. And he’s the first to point out that there’s room for improvement.

“I think one of the things we’re going to have to address is decision-making tools, integrating them in,” he said, noting that the amount of data that agencies are submitting is growing so large that it’s difficult for users to know what to do with it all.

Klimavicz said he credited much of his team's success to two factors: new technologies and the urgency of the oil spill response. “Technology has come a long way,” he said, noting that NOAA was able to launch the Geospatial Platform largely by using existing resources. But “it would not have happened without the emphasis from the Deepwater Horizon. It made it easier to get through the red tape.”

See more of the 2010 GCN Awards winners.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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