Tag Archives: Virtual USA

Crisis Mapping and Collaboration–Alabama leads the pack

Alabama Department of Homeland Security

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

Collaboration platforms for emergency response organizations are generally designed to accomplish one or more of the following: 1. Provide a common operating picture/situational awareness; 2. Provide a means to determine the deployment of resources in order to prevent duplication of effort; and 3. To provide a means to aggregate data into a format that enables real-time analysis. In Alabama, they are  adding a couple more endeavors to that list, including providing accurate and timely information to, and eventually from the public.

Innovation happens for a reason, either you have a specific problem that needs to be addressed and/or you have to a champion or a “sparkplug” who pushes the cause. Virtual Alabama (click the link to watch a great 3 min. video) was first initiated in October of 2005 at the request of the Governor.  The Alabama Department of Homeland Security’s website describes the project as one that was “initiated… to access new technologies in 3D visualization. At the request of Governor Bob Riley, AL DHS began exploring and identifying ways to leverage existing state asset imagery and infrastructure data into a visualization tool that is affordable, scalable, maintainable, and capable of employing the power of existing and evolving internet based applications. As a result, the Virtual Alabama program was created.” It was built using a customizable/enterprise version of Google Earth that allows for the inclusion of data overlays. The data can include block by block information such as location of fire hydrants all the way up to flood-plain visualization.

The system spurred Virtual Louisiana and led to the creation of  Virtual USA, yet the Alabamans have not rested on their laurels. What they have come to understand is that although this information was available to first responders, there needed to be a way for the public to have access. To address this concern they are about to roll out  a “portal based environment” designed for public access which will even be available as a mobile application.  The end-goal is to have a single interface where private business information, critical to citizens during a crisis, is available:

  • data from gas-stations (e.g. whether of not they are out of fuel)
  • hotel capacity and pet policy information
  • available kennels and veterinarians
  • grocery stores information, etc.

They are also considering how they will integrate situational awareness information provided by the citizens, such as video or pictures from the scene of a disaster. The opportunity to include eyewitness accounts is appealing, but has to be understood within the context of the policy limitations of a Government agency; this has led to the development of a computer “filter” that would be able to recognize things such as nudity or  graphic imagery not suitable for public distribution. I’m not sure when this feature will be implemented, but the public app is in the vulnerability testing phase and should be available the first part of December.

Alabama also has been innovative in its proactive use of technology volunteers. Recognizing that its much more expensive to clean up after a severed gas-line than it is to map it in the fist place, they have enlisted the help of the Auburn University GIS students to plot GPS coordinates of utility lines along the coast. This data would be available to heavy equipment operators after a hurricane, for example, through either a mobile app on a smart phone, or on a mobile computer. Since the data already exist on the platform it can be used offline, another great feature.

Students in the Auburn Management Information Systems’ Department also were enlisted  by AL DHS to help with a “report suspicious activity” feature available on the new citizen portal, also available as a mobile application. Taken from the Department of Homeland Security’s “see something, say something” campaign, this feature will allow citizens to upload video, pics or information to a “government eyes-only” law enforcement site. This takes citizen “tips” line to a whole new level.

I look forward to seeing all of these new feature available to the citizens of Alabama. Let’s hope other states are watching and learning.

Thanks to Shane Hammett , the Virtual Alabama Team Leader for the information. Questions can be directed to Alabama’s Criminal Justice Information Center.


Resource Mapping to Foster Community Resilience: Can Crisis Mappers be Proactive?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The crisis mapping volunteer community and the United Nations are trying to develop more formal processes to create technical bridges between formal response organizations and the volunteer community. They also want to “cross-translate and cross-populate information especially after a sudden onset disaster or crisis, ” according this this source Cross-fertilisation of UN Common Operational Datasets and Crisismapping.

While these efforts may be a great step for those two communities, I do not think these effort apply to crises and disasters  in the US.  Here in the U.S.. the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) is designing resources for mapping and displaying crisis data for use by and for designated response personnel.  More specifically, Virtual USA is a platform designed to aid interoperability by allowing cross-state and cross-agency sharing of data .  So far, this system has been deployed to only a few states so outcomes are not yet well known.  In the private sector, major retailers, such as WalMart, are determining how they can incorporate their data (e.g., stores open in the impacted areas, donation shipments, etc.) into this platform.  To date, the platform is not public and has limited ability (mostly due to organizational issues) to incorporate information collected and curated by the volunteer community.

The big question: Can a system be created that supplements rather than supplants already existing emergency management operations in the US, and can it be designed to include public/volunteer participation?

First there is the issue of timing for the start of a crisis mapping effort. Erle Schuyler has made an interesting point when he said: “Crisis Mapping” is an inherently reactive practice. The disaster, whatever it is, has already happened by the time the mapping starts, which is almost by definition, the worst point in time to do anything. The best time to map a disaster, naturally, is before the disaster occurs.”

His point aligns with a concept I’ve been pondering: Resource Mapping for Community Resilience. Its somewhat simple on the surface:

  1. The map would be divided into vital resources with  pre-determined categories: food (local grocery stores); shelter (local hotels,motels, and even designated shelter locations); home improvement/hardware stores; hospitals & clinics; public buildings such as schools. Additionally, it could include vulnerable communities, such as retirement or nursing homes.
  2. The map would be readily available to the entire community–not just the responders.  It could be stored on the website of local or state emergency management agencies,  or with Red Cross chapters, which would enhance trust among the users. If the local emergency management agencies sanction it (or buy into the process), they could house the info on their servers. ( Decisions about how to update the information would have to be worked out.)
  3. Local businesses and national chains would be encouraged to participate by verifying location information, for example, and they should be encouraged to add their own data.

How would this work? In the event of a crisis, or even in the days before a known threat (e.g. hurricane or winter storm) retailers would be encouraged to update their “status” (e.g. store closed until further notice, or, store received no damage but will be open with limited hours; or store severely damaged, etc.). The same would apply for public buildings; for example, posting the note that schools are closed today.  These updates could easily be done from any location by authorized personnel.

Advantages of this system: The issue of verification is reduced, especially, if the retailers do the reporting.  No retailer would say they had damage to their store if they did not. If orange is the color demonstrating damage, one look at the map would enable both the public and response personnel a visualization of the impacted area.

There are several roles for volunteers, especially local volunteers.  Local trusted volunteers, such as CERT team members or the “Net Guard” could be recruited to:

  1. Help vital businesses understand the need to participate
  2. Help plot information on the community map in the preparedness phase
  3. Update information about the community after the crisis (especially if the business has not done so and is damaged/closed, for example)

More technically skilled volunteers will be needed to create applications potentially on already existing platforms, such as OpenStreetMap, or maybe even Google Maps. Data entry forms, etc. will need to be created along with the ability to show these maps for an entire state. A mobile application would be ideal, as well.

Some Key Challenges:

  1. Businesses may not want to put information about how long they will be closed, since that might affect their ability to compete
  2. Maps would have to show information from large regions/maybe state-wide in order to be helpful because sometimes resources are just a short drive away from the impact zone.
  3. If there is no power, and no Internet, how will the affected population see this information? Hopefully, this is where the smart-phone mobile app could play a role, but I envision this helping in mostly non-catastrophic events.

A similar concept is being implemented by an organization called  GeoNode with assistance from the World Bank. They are more focused on creating visualizations of data to help populations understand their natural disaster risk. Although the concepts are somewhat different their “roadmap” might have some useful information regarding needed features, for example, the need for a “web-based upload of data”.

Please let me know your thoughts.