Beverly Hills, the glitzy Los Angeles suburb, is known by most as a haven for Southern California’s rich and famous. But beyond Rodeo Drive and the jet-setting “teenagers” depicted by the soap opera sharing the same name, Beverly Hills must grapple with reality just like every other city.

Beverly Hills also has needs that sometimes transcend the ordinary. Celebrities, politicians and dignitaries from around the globe demand that the city performs above and beyond when it comes to public safety. In addition, the city is nestled near Southern California mountains that are infamous for bursting into infernos. Add to that the fact of life that besets all of Southern California — the potential for catastrophic earthquakes — and it becomes clear that the goings-on behind the scenes in Beverly Hills can be anything but glamorous.

To help city officials and public safety better prepare for and react to emergencies, the City Council and Mayor Jimmy Delshad tasked CIO David Schirmer with developing a system that would allow users to visualize on a map, real-time resource data, disaster information, traffic conditions or anything else they imagined would be helpful. What resulted is a cutting-edge GIS application known as Virtual Beverly Hills.

Video: Virtual Beverly Hills is an interactive Web-based GIS portal for emergency operations and public information.

More Than a Map

“Virtual Beverly Hills was developed to meet the needs of emergency responders and public safety of Beverly Hills with the intention to expand for regional use,” explained Lema Kebede, the city’s GIS systems integrator/program coordinator. “It has a major mapping component that is the central point of this application. But we took it beyond just basic mapping.”

The program is built atop GIS software from Esri, which is based in Redlands, Calif. A Virtual Beverly Hills user is presented with an aerial map of the city, similar to those one would find using Google, Yahoo or Bing maps. But that’s where the similarities end and the power of Virtual Beverly Hills begins.

Virtual Beverly Hills incorporates a vast array of data sets from internal and external sources. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data sets, for example, let users accurately map potential damage from an earthquake while internal city computer-aided design data sets provide emergency responders with precision detail about structures that might be affected in a disaster. With the click of a mouse, users can even access real-time video feeds from city CCTV cameras, which could be invaluable in an emergency.

Video: Virtual Beverly Hills was recently challenged when a crowd of more than 20,000 ran through town.

All this data is stored in the city’s geo-database, into which Virtual Beverly Hills is integrated. External data can be processed and layered on the map in near real time, providing public safety with up-to-the-minute details should an emergency arise. The database also stores data as it’s being received in case a disaster severs network connections. For example, Kebede said that Virtual Beverly Hills receives live data from the USGS during an earthquake. If the network connection is lost, the data is stored locally, allowing emergency responders to keep using the system.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.