Photo: Alabama Homeland Security Director James Walker

Alabama has seen 451 tornadoes since Governor Bob Riley's inauguration. Furthermore the state was deluged with rains from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That's when Gov. Riley turned to his homeland security director James Walker with a challenge. Riley asked Walker how was he going to apply for federal assistance if he didn't know what the affected area looked like before the hurricane. And shouldn't the state have that imagery in an easily accessible place and not just a picture of the aftermath?

That's when Walker went for a solution that would allow geospatial data to be stored on a common platform and easily shared and accessible to the state Department of Homeland Security so the governor could justify his request for assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He thought he might find it in government, but to no avail. So he turned to the private sector and eventually found it at Google, Walker told attendees of a lunch session Oct 30th at the Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness conference in Chicago. 

Selling the Mash Up

The data Walker needed resided in agencies across the state, and often in counties and cities. And, as often happens, those agencies were reluctant to give up their data without something in return. They had to be convinced that they would be able to access their data on a statewide platform. Another concern they had was this: Once they gave up the data, who was going to tell them what they could and could not do with it? The result is a common operating platform that provides free layered geospatial data from agencies across the state and that allows all areas of government to do their jobs better. And the best part? The state doesn't tell the agencies how to use the information. And that, says Walker, is spurring some innovative applications.

The Revolution

Therein lies the truly empowering aspect of Virtual Alabama; because what started out as a homeland security/emergency management damage assessment tool, has become a facilitator for other areas of government throughout the state. The system currently has about 4,000 users across 1,100 agencies, Walker said. Virtual Alabama has also become a reason to share information to give people such as bomb technicians and principals the tools to keep citizens safe.  The potluck approach to this application means that the Civil Air Patrol can fly around and take pictures; firefighters can model buildings in their spare time at the station house;  police can plot the location of a sex offender in relation to a school, daycare center or other area where children are.  Geospatial data from Virtual Alabama can also be used for recruiting companies and identifying property owners. Virtual Alabama can even show the user the real-time location of all the forest fires burning across the country, as Walker demonstrated during the session.

Public Safety and Emergency Management

Police officers, and firefighters and others involved in responding to an emergency or natural disaster have benefited greatly from this system. For example, the location of every radio tower in Alabama is plotted on a map that also shows how much coverage they provide. And Virtual Alabama provides commanders with the real-time location of each of the patrol cars and officers under his or her control.

These shared data mash-ups have become even more important in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as the frequency of natural disasters and number of incidents occurring at the same time across the country has increased. With first responders taxed the way they are in responding to major incidents, mutual aid becomes more important than ever. And Virtual Alabama provides first responder who have come to the aid of Alabama with the tools (such as building schematics and disaster

response plans) to get up to speed with what to do quickly. In addition, the local fire chief knows where the equipment is, what it can do and how old it is as well as the availability and training of personnel.

Geospatial information from Virtual Alabama also helps the Department of Transportation plan the counterflow of traffic during an evacuation. Furthermore, with the system, the Alabama Department of Child Affairs can see how much people spend on groceries and use that data to predict who is likely to evacuate and then develop strategies to get the holdouts out of harm's way.

The welfare of their animals is one reason people may be reluctant to leave their homes. Recognizing this, the state's commissioner of agriculture, who is responsible for the welfare of animals during a disaster, made a map of all the hotels that take pets and how much it costs to stay there so citizens will be willing to get out of the way of a natural disaster.

Virtual Alabama also shows up-to-the-minute power outages. This allows power companies to be proactive about contacting customers and providing them with information on when power will be restored. 

School Safety

A school principal is responsible for the safety of his or her students and staff. That's why, in the wake of school shootings such as that occurred at Virginia Tech, floor plans of school buildings, and their surveillance cameras are now connected to Virtual Alabama. As a result, instead of spending money to put a sworn police officer in each school to keep the children safe, the cameras are connected to a network behind a firewall. And the principal, who controls access to the cameras can grant first responders access to the footage from the schools' surveillance cameras. This can solve and prevent crime, but it can also save first responders valuable time searching empty rooms when responding to an incident. That's because the system shows first responders where the students are. 

All this is under the control of the principal, and it is not used as a tool to monitor teacher performance, Walker said.

The driving force behind Virtual Alabama, Walker said, is to use technology and that belongs to the people of Alabama to give data to decision makers at all levels of government throughout the state. It belongs to whoever will use it, he said. As a result, bright people in government are showing what can be done with collaboration, existing government data and little money.

Lessons learned:

  • Find smart people in military bases in your state and recruit them to work on technology projects to benefit the state.
  • You never know if your info will be useful to some other agency.
  • If people have the tools, they will do innovative things with them.

The greatest compliment he received about Virtual Alabama, Walker said, came from a Pennsylvania educator who remarked he had no idea Virtual Alabama originated as a homeland security project. That is a product of collaboration.