Preparedness & Recovery

From Virtual Virginia to Virtual USA

The Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response system has been a model for other GIS sharing systems.

by Jessica Hughes / October 29, 2010
Illustration by Tom McKeith. Tom McKeith/Nov 2010 mag art

Almost since its beginnings, the Virginia Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER) system has been a model for other GIS sharing systems through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) information-sharing initiative Virtual USA, which is part of the White House’s Open Government Initiative.

VIPER is a Web-based GIS enterprise platform that uses existing information to display dynamic relationships in context. VIPER brings emergency commanders and first responders, as well as local, state and federal stakeholders, before the same geospatial images and information.

In December 2009, the DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate’s Command, Control and Interoperability (CCI) Division launched the initiative to promote real-time emergency response collaboration among states, and ultimately among all levels of government.

It has since expanded quickly, with several collaborative, regional pilots testing prototype generations; in less than two years it has grown from two to 20 participating states. Through the initiative, states share information through and about their technology solutions, capitalizing on the power of GIS to present data in a contextual format.

David Boyd, director of the CCI Division, said the initiative avoided the resistance characterized by other national information-sharing efforts by keeping states in control of their data and emphasizing the use of existing technologies. This is a welcome departure, Boyd said, from expensive one-size-fits-all approaches. The reality is that “nobody can ever afford to throw out their plans and start over,” he said.

The ease of sharing basic information between two similar visualization systems supported by different platforms — Virtual Alabama with its Google Earth platform and Virginia’s VIPER with its Esri platform — cemented the idea in February 2009 of creating a national initiative that encourages information sharing in an environment that’s comfortable for states. Within the Virtual USA network, states initiate information exchanges, deciding when and with whom to share their information.

“What’s most important is that it brings together commonly accepted standards in this field, making it much, much easier to share information,” Boyd said.

Brian Crumpler, GIS manager for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, sees the Virtual USA community as important to the success of technologies like VIPER. “When you have an environment where people can interact with one another, you not only see that there may be solutions that already exist, but you also discover that when you take parts of different people’s solutions, you can come up with something that addresses an unmet need in a way that nobody else has done before.”