GIS map data in the cloud

FEMA seeks to make emergency data available in real time

During response and recovery missions, the Federal Emergency Management Agency receives massive amounts of data in a variety of formats from a multitude of sources. But the data often is not delivered in a manner that readily supports geospatial representation. And frequently, disseminating the information beyond the data owner is not permitted.

As a result, valuable time and resources are devoted to converting data to a geospatial-compatible format or searching for other sources of mission-critical information. And support systems often prevent sharing data with customers outside government firewalls.

So FEMA is looking for ways to move geospatial data to the cloud to provide federal, state and local agencies and other partners with real-time access to critical data during emergencies, according to a request for information issued by the agency. 

FEMA’s Disaster Management and Support Environment (DMSE) Program Management Office, under FEMA's Office of Response and Recovery, is interested in developing a cloud environment that will support geospatial efforts to merge data and processes of several legacy systems. The cloud infrastructure must be able to host information subject to Privacy Act restrictions and sensitive government information. The solution FEMA officials envision also should be easily managed by administrators working within .net and .gov domains, according to the RFI.

DMSE currently uses the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) public cloud for data creation, discovery and storage. The environment resides outside government firewalls, providing a platform for the rapid and transparent exchange of data with FEMA's GIS customers. This capability was tested during Hurricane Sandy when massive amounts of data were being produced, exchanged and discovered by emergency management communities and the public, FEMA officials said.

File sizes were close to terabytes, visitors numbered in the millions, and thousands of Web services were produced and consumed. An additional server with expanded computing capabilities had to be added  to handle the load on the servers.

DMSE uses the Web-based Arc GIS Online for Organizations (AGOL) for its main user interface. AGOL is the "viewer" providing transparency of public-facing GIS information to all FEMA customers. The FEMA GeoPlatform administrative functions are almost exclusively managed by designated FEMA GIS staff. An account is not required to view public-facing information and maps, according to the RFI.

A contracted vendor currently provides fully managed services in EC2, which has reduced the time required to implement critical changes in support of mission demands. Additionally, FEMA's GIS analysts primarily use Esri's ArcGIS as the GIS system for working with maps and geographic information. ArcGIS 10.1 resides on the user's desktop as well as on the EC2 servers in the cloud.

However, FEMA is looking to broaden the capabilities of the cloud environment. Through this RFI, DMSE is looking for geospatial technical support services for application hosting, compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act security guidelines, connectivity in austere environments, custom application development, database and Web hosting services, data migration, elasticity, fully managed services, mobile compatibility, scalability, secured services, and storage.

“DMSE is focused on providing a transparent enterprise geospatial model that embraces and fosters a collaborative strategy and sharing environment. The objective of the effort is to establish a common view of critical data during times of emergency response and recovery,” according to the RFI.

FEMA is not the only agency looking to move geospatial data into the cloud.  A consortium of Western states is now poised to store GIS data in commercial cloud environments to cut storage costs and improve efficiency.  The Western States Contracting Alliance (WSCA) and the National Association of State Procurement Officials, working in collaboration with Colorado, Montana, Oregon and Utah, have awarded four contracts for GIS public cloud hosting services to Dell, Dewberry, Esri and Unisys. 

WSCA is a 15-state consortium that helps participants join in cooperative purchasing agreements that extend across multiple states. Two years ago, WSCA issued a request for information seeking feedback from vendors on the technical and financial feasibility of hosting GIS data and services supported by the individual states in commercial cloud infrastructures. The states had three primary objectives for considering GIS cloud services: cost efficiencies, flexibility and scalability, and reduction in staff support time.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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