Bitten by the GIS Bug

Pennsylvania adapts virus-tracking system to homeland defense.

by / September 5, 2002
Mosquitoes are among nature's least loved winged insects. But, when they went from being mere pests to carriers of the West Nile Virus, they became a serious health threat. Today, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is putting its experience with battling virus-carrying mosquitoes to good use in fighting an even greater threat to the nation's health - biological and chemical terrorism.

When the West Nile Virus, carried by mosquitoes, threatened to migrate from New York to Pennsylvania several years ago, the commonwealth responded by creating a GIS-based system that plots and tracks the location where virus-infected animals have been found.

The events of 9-11 spawned the Pennsylvania Incident Response System (PAIRS), an application modeled after the West Nile Virus system that is designed to track bio-terrorism threats, assess potential incidents and analyze suspected biological agents.

GIS forms the cross-agency platform that is key to the effectiveness of both the West Nile Virus Tracking system and PAIRS, according to Eric Conrad, a 25-year veteran of state service. Conrad, deputy secretary for field operations at Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), is a long-time champion of GIS mapping to streamline government processes.

In 2001, as the West Nile Virus proliferated, the commonwealth found itself poorly positioned to respond. Conrad, a strong proponent of the "picture is worth a thousand words" theory, was confident that GIS mapping would be an essential tool in meeting the new threat.
Starting with no infrastructure, staffing or experience in tracking vector-born diseases, the DEP created a multi-agency system based on shared information and systems.

"We kept three cabinet secretaries on message for three years, and the public benefited because everyone was working together," Conrad said. "The message was consistent about what the state was doing to protect them. We even had environmental groups on our side. It suddenly became a role model for good government."

The know-how gained from that experience now is being used to strengthen homeland defense.

"We are building the incidence response system," he said. "All the technology and pieces that are being rolled into this new system have already been proven."
Thanks to some forethought, flexibility had been part of the original model. "What happened was that when we built the tracking system, I said we can't build it just for one disease," Conrad said. "It has to have an open architecture."

The core of the West Nile Virus system is a relational database shared by four Pennsylvania agencies - DEP, the Health Department, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Field agents use handheld computers to gather incident information as they collect samples. That information is then fed into the database.

"If you get the people doing the field work putting [information] in the database, you get fewer errors," Conrad said. "We thought about how we could minimize the amount of data entry and that's where the handhelds came in. Our aim was to keep it as simple as possible."

Field agents carry HP iPAQ units, but Conrad said any Windows CE-based device could be used. The system, based on ESRI's ArcPad GIS software, immediately captures longitude and latitude for collected samples; it also records the time of collection and offers customizable screens for additional field-collection data.

When field agents return to the office, their mobile devices are synced to laptops and data is downloaded to the enterprise GIS database using ESRI's ArcSDE software. ArcSDE is the GIS gateway that facilitates managing spatial data within the database management system.

The entire process was designed with field staff in mind.

"They are more scientists than IT people," Conrad said, adding that simplicity of use was a core requirement for the system.

Along with the four partner agencies, three state laboratories, 67 county governments and three federal agencies are tied into the West Nile Virus system.

In April 2002, there were 400,000 hits on the system's secure Web site, demonstrating the value of the mapped data in the operation of government. The Web site also has a public face where current information is updated and maps are made available.

The GIS maps show where clusters of disease-carrying mosquitoes or birds were found. Furthermore, the site explains what eradication methods are used and offers advice on how to prevent mosquito-breeding environments from developing.

With the cross-agency GIS foundation in place and the West Nile system proving its value, Conrad was already considering other applications for the program when the unexpected happened.

"We were starting small but had big dreams for what it could do," he said. "On 9-11, I watched the towers come down and said 'We have something that can help.' It was one of those chills-type moments."

Like the virus-tracking system, the PAIRS program requires that agencies share information, adopt standards and remove historical barriers.

"Communication and cooperation are the key," Conrad said. "It's getting people to share the data and trust the system. If you keep the door open, sooner or later people will come through."

He said the demonstrated successes of the West Nile system are being used to encourage participation in PAIRS.

For example, the West Nile system simplified the task of entering data about virus samples by assigning a bar code to each sample. Consequently, laboratory scientists could immediately identify specimens by using a bar code reader and matching the specimens to collection sites.

Conrad said bar-coding reduced the workload from about eight hours to two hours, an efficiency gain that has cross-agency appeal.

With PAIRS, information about suspected bio-terrorist incidents can be entered from remote sites and statewide notifications sent to agencies. Authorized officials can view maps and data generated by the system, look for patterns and access risks. All information is viewed in real time, and material from other relevant databases, such as JNET, also will be integrated on the system's internal Web site.

Further examination of an incident will be handled through a secure "conference center" site where users with proper clearance can log on and view proprietary data, which can be removed at the close of the call.

A public version of the PAIRS Web site will offer automatic updates of information, send out e-mail alerts and provide a consistent message from all the participating agencies. It also will serve as a central point for media information.

"Across the agencies, at different levels, the opportunity that I see is that most GIS applications are added on," Conrad said. "We've taken it and put it at the beginning so that it is an integral of the process. The map drives the rest of the report. We've really reversed the process."

PAIRS has been so effective that the Office of Homeland Security invited Conrad to demonstrate the system. Although he was anxious to show PAIRS to homeland security officials, Conrad says that GIS technology is being used in innovative ways throughout the nation.

"I [believe] that everyone has something to contribute," he said. "I don't want to be limited to my own visions. I want to build on what others have done. The goal is not one person succeeding, but the nation succeeding."
Darby Patterson Editor in Chief