Virtual USA: How geospatial tech is changing government

Every once in a while, a technology comes along that can fundamentally transform the way governments work — and work with one another.

According to participants in recently concluded pilot projects of Virtual USA, the program's technologies are doing just that. Virtual USA is the Homeland Security Department's effort to coordinate development and integration of geospatial tools at all levels of government.

“Virtual USA basically set the path, and we were able to follow that path,” said Amy Esnard, GIS manager for Multnomah County, Ore. “Work groups, different iterations of application development, technical processes — it really helped to see that already worked through."

“They set the framework, and we were able to apply that to our own project,” Esnard said.

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In Multnomah County, which includes Portland, the result was the launch of a common operating picture, dubbed the Virtual Emergency Network of Multnomah County (VENOM), which integrates county systems with state and regional partners' systems for emergency management operations.

According to DHS, a similar system launched in Virginia in 2008, named VIPER, short for Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response, has reduced response times to incidents involving hazardous materials by 70 percent.

VIPER and VENOM, along with dozens of other projects in development, are the result of Virtual USA’s unique approach to integrating the efforts of government at federal, state, county and local levels.

Data-sharing creed

“The origin of Virtual USA was in the understanding that data sharing was going to be one of the primary ways of increasing effectiveness and efficiency in emergency response,” said Robert Griffin, DHS’ director of the Support to First Responders and the Homeland Security Group.

“If you look at any of the big after-action reports — whether it was Oklahoma City, 9/11 or Katrina — situational awareness and the ability to share data [have] been identified along with interoperable communications as two of the areas that we really need to strengthen as a nation.”

What makes the Virtual USA effort unusual is that projects receive at least as much support from the bottom as from the top. 

In part because many states and localities have already invested in a variety of hardware and geospatial software, Virtual USA aims to help jurisdictions integrate their efforts with others regardless of the development platform. “We’re looking to maximize the use of existing systems,” Griffin said.

That means, of course, that the teams spend a good deal of effort working on ways to make homeland security data accessible on the different GIS platforms and programming platforms used by various levels of government, whether it be ESRI’s ArcView, Adobe Flex, Google Earth or Silverlight.

“The basic idea of Virtual USA is that it is viewer agnostic," said Cy Smith, geographic information officer for Oregon, whose team participated in the Northwest pilot program. “The whole underpinning of it is data and the ability to share that as feeds in lots of different formats.”

The data at the heart of Virtual USA is also decentralized. Whichever agency owns the data Virtual Emergency Network of Multnomah County — whether at the federal, state or local level — stores, updates and controls who gets to see the data.  

“We recognize that data ownership has been and continues to be a big issue,” Griffin said. “The idea of developing systems that allow people to control their own data does a couple of things. One is that it helps build trust. It helps create a buy-in for people to be willing to share data. And it also ensures that the data stays fresh.” Another benefit is that it builds resiliency into the system. “You don’t have a single point of failure,” Griffin said.

“We are pragmatic enough to understand that data sharing is as much about building relationships and having good governance agreements as it is about technology,” Griffin added. “If people don’t want to share data, we can have the most technologically perfect system in the world and data won’t be shared.”

Emergency response needs   

When emergency managers from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington launched a simulated response Dec. 16, 2010, to a severe winter storm, the virtues of sharing data were obvious.

“As soon as we had all the screens up in the emergency control center in Salem — with Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington all displayed — our local jurisdictions and municipalities saw the value for all levels of government,” Multnomah County’s Esnard said. “Staff at the city of Gresham drew an evacuation route that published automatically to the larger audience. It was pretty amazing.”

The simulation of a 2006 winter storm marked the end of Virtual USA’s second major pilot program. “I give us an A+,” Esnard said. “The demonstration was a valuable hands-on experience. We were able to show multistate data sharing. All levels were really benefiting from this.”
Smith agreed. “You get all of the emergency response community — the whole stack, vertically as well as horizontally — able to have the same information and in real time. And these folks are not just seeing the information. They are able to interact with the viewer to create information. They can pull an icon down to a road that says ‘road closure’ and then everyone else will see that that road has been closed.”

The end of the Virtual USA pilot program was only the beginning for the efforts of participating agencies. 

Local jurisdictions that already have the system running, such as Multnomah County, are finding the connectivity to state data useful. Esnard noted that until they joined Virtual USA, the county had no access to data from Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, which tracks hazardous materials, drinking water sources, pipelines and other environmental factors. 

“Now when we have an emergency and we can overlay critical infrastructure layers from the state, we can see what child care centers might be in proximity to a pipeline, what hazardous materials might be in a pool around a child care center or a hospital,” she said.  “We are actually able to draw the picture for emergency preparedness, response and mitigation. We couldn’t do that without it.”

The state wants to move such capabilities as quickly as it can to other jurisdictions.  “The next step, and we’ve been moving toward this as quickly as we can, is to distribute that [capability] to the state and then to other jurisdictions beyond the Portland metro area,” Smith said.

3-D sharing

Although the Virtual USA pilot projects focused on horizontal state-to-state data sharing, the greatest interest seems to be in data sharing among the federal, state and local levels.

“We need to figure ways to push data to the localities from the states and from the localities to the states,” Griffin said.

Esnard said she agrees but added that although federal data might be of interest to states, the critical link for most local jurisdictions is with state data.

“We’re learning as much as we can from the Virtual USA folks about the framework,” she said. “But as far as needing to access federal data, that’s more the state’s thing. We’re more of a local-level data consumer.”

Of course, all parties realize that although most of the data flow on a day-to-day basis might be vertical between localities and states, the flows can change quickly in the event of a larger-scale event that crosses local jurisdictions and that might call for federal involvement.

“As soon as you have a [regional] emergency, folks are going to start" to use state-to-state links, Smith said. “We’ve got some more work to do to make it operational. Each of the four states has a viewer, and they have data feeds into the viewer. In some cases — weather, for example — there are regional and national data feeds. And it all fits together."

“But from an operational perspective — in terms of chains of command and all the things that you need to have happen for emergency operators to really use the system in a cross-state emergency response — it’s just not operational yet,” Smith said.

However, if there were a regional event, Smith said, “I think we would pretty quickly pick this up. It really is ready to use. The tool is ready to go.”

Post-trial policy stamp

Apart from expanding Virtual USA to include more jurisdictions, there are two big challenges to improving the system, Smith said. “One, it’s not in the nature of agencies or in the structure of government to work across the stovepipes. Making those connections is something people do all the time, but they do it in informal, noninstitutionalized ways,” he said. “So the challenge is to find ways to institutionalize the connections and really solidify them and formalize them so that they persist beyond the individuals who are involved.”

In addition to formalizing relationships among government agencies at different levels, there’s also a need to make it easier to establish data-sharing agreements.

Esnard, for example, was thrilled to have data from the state Department of Environmental Quality during the pilot program. But now that the program has ended, the data has stopped coming. “The information hasn’t been refreshed because the state hasn’t finalized data-sharing agreements with the Department of Environmental Quality,” Esnard said. 

“We won’t be able to operate without current data, and winter is coming quickly.”

Frustrated with the delays, Esnard’s team has been trying to create data-sharing agreement prototypes so that they can approach other agencies directly. “There are a lot of people at the state level who still think in the traditional top-down way,” she said. “They don’t see why they should distribute anything to the local level when the state level can access it. People need to start becoming more accountable for their data [and realize] that they can share it.”

Smith said he agreed. “There are a number of impediments, some of which are legal and some of which are policy, that need to be fixed,” he said. “We need a legal and policy framework for data sharing that doesn’t exist yet, so we’re kind of building that as we go.”

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