Virtual Alabama: 10 years of lessons learned

Virtual Alabama: 10 years of lessons learned

It’s been 10 years since Alabama launched its trailblazing public-safety portal, Virtual Alabama.  According to Phillip Henderson, director of Alabama’s Geographic Information Program Office, the Virtual Alabama team has learned some important lessons as the program has expanded.

When Virtual Alabama first launched, it used Google Earth to display an array of state and local data, including streets, utilities and critical infrastructure.  The portal, which was launched by Alabama’s Department of Homeland Security, was used primarily by first responders to plan disaster response.  Along with providing a common operating picture of infrastructure, comparison of pre-event and post-event aerial imagery allowed responders to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts.

Within three years, Virtual Alabama was being used by more 5,000 individual users at more than 1,450 agencies at every level of government.

And in recent years, the number of participating agencies has grown quickly to include those responsible for agriculture, the environment, law enforcement and education.  And as more agencies have adopted Virtual Alabama, their data has been added to the system and made available to appropriate agencies in the broader community. Today, more than 36,000 users from over 3,000 agencies in all 67 Alabama counties tap into Virtual Alabama.

Lessons learned

According to Henderson, the Virtual Alabama team has learned a number of lessons about managing and growing its statewide data platform.  The first, he said, was not to simply accept the limits of software. 

When Google Earth Enterprise first launched, Henderson noted, users could not password-protect individual layers of data -- a critical feature for agencies needing to control access to potentially sensitive public data.  “So we had our program team come in,” Henderson said. “Now if you have the right privileges, you can click on layer and it will work.”

A second, and related, lesson was not to rely on a single platform.  Henderson said he was already looking for other ways to access and visualize Alabama’s data when Google announced it was going to stop supporting Google Earth Enterprise at the end of 2015.

“The Google Earth client had limitations in that it’s a thin client on your desktop,” Henderson said.  “We don’t need that. That’s not the way the world is going. So our new version is completely agnostic. It will work on any device, and it was designed with mobile in mind. You can use your iPad or iPhone, Android, any device.”

While Virtual Alabama still supports users who want to access data through Google Earth, Henderson said the team is focusing on developing its new statewide version running on Esri’s ArcGIS Online.  “Folks with a Virtual Alabama login can go to our ArcGIS Online instance, which opens the door for those who want more of a GIS-type look and feel,” he said.

A new data product -- the Alabama School Safety System, which provides the locations of emergency equipment inside schools to responders -- is built on yet another platform, Nside.

“Virtual Alabama is really like a toolbox,” said Henderson.  “If you want to go to the Google Earth client you can go do it. If you want to go to ArcGIS online, you can go to that. If you want to go to the School Safety System you can go to that.”

Keep it simple

Perhaps the biggest lesson his team has learned, however, is to keep things simple, both in the interfaces offered to users and in the way data is collected and processed.

“So much of our user base are not GIS people. They are common folks doing extraordinary jobs to keep people safe,” Henderson said.  The team didn’t want users to  have to learn a complicated new system.

As a result, a new interface was developed so users can get anywhere in the system in three clicks or less.  “Your computer literacy shouldn’t hold you back on your ability to respond to an emergency,” Henderson said. “What we’re trying to do is level the playing field of the technology.”

Keeping it simple is the rule of thumb that’s also applied to collecting data.  Henderson said that when his team began mapping schools for the School Safety System, they realized that the “standard” way of indoor mapping required hiring a company that would use LiDAR or other sophisticated tools.  Worse still, he said, “it will probably take two to three weeks to get a map, and the cost would be pretty high, too.” 

“That’s not the way we work here,” he said.  So the team took a totally different approach. “Specifically, people were sent to make a quick digital floorplan and then manually plug in the approximate location of 70 to 80 different features identified for inclusion, including fire alarms, fire extinguishers and electrical panels.

“Sure, we could map it to a millimeter if we trying to check for foundation cracks,” Henderson said.  “But what is important is the 70 to 80 features that have been identified … for school safety.”

Using the stripped-down mapping procedures, Henderson said, 1,500 schools have been mapped in about three years.  “That would take a longer time with traditional mapping techniques,” he said.

Future plans

Even as the Virtual Alabama team is working to put the finishing touches on the School Safety System, Henderson said he is eager to move on other new projects.

At the top of his list is an application that would provide access to data from all 911 centers in the state.  Currently, each emergency call district is autonomous and its data is separate from that of neighboring districts.  Henderson wants to get that data moving across the network to Virtual Alabama, “so we can display it to first responders as needed.”

A networked system would provide valuable capabilities, Henderson explained, such as allowing jurisdictions to receive alerts automatically an area receives more 911 calls than usual. A greater number of emergency calls in a region may signify a larger problem than responders to individual events may anticipate.

“If within, say, a 10-mile event radius you’re receiving more than 20 calls,” Henderson suggested, the system would emails law enforcement officials. “When it looks like locals are getting overwhelmed, we could have a quick state response.”

The state is also considering creating a public facing version of Virtual Alabama, Henderson said.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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