if he is violating his parole.'

"We can 3-D model buildings and say, 'OK, you want to take down a meth lab or you want to have a surveillance or SWAT operation? Before you even go, you can do rehearsals, view line of sight, determine a way in, a way out, the best ways to enter, before you ever put an officer in harm's way. You can save lives.' Boy, they jumped all over that." 

Virtual Alabama is unique for several reasons. First, the program succeeded where others failed by defeating the jurisdictional and proprietary issues that dog other projects. Walker credits Riley for delivering the necessary executive leadership and Norvin Goddard, a rocket scientist on loan to the state from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., for creating an application that uses the power of GIS data and delivers it in a format that even nontechnical emergency personnel can use during a crisis. Walker, a former soldier and firefighter, also believes that the platform Google Earth provides was paramount in making Virtual Alabama a reality.

"We have all 67 counties loaded; it's the most comprehensive data set in the country," Walker said. "No other state has it. What's beautiful about this program is it reflects the best of government."

Virtual Alabama gives emergency personnel - county commissioners, sheriffs, police chiefs, firefighters and emergency managers - the ability to achieve things they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. For example, with the 3-D modeling capabilities built in to Google Earth, law enforcement agencies can visually render a suspected drug lab, allowing SWAT officers to determine lines of sight, and the best entry and exit points. Similarly firefighters racing to a burning structure can quickly determine the fastest route to the site and whether any hazardous materials may be stored there.

Virtual Alabama also provides tools that help emergency officials react to even the most uncommon scenarios, such as a toxic gas cloud that may threaten a population.

"You can do plume modeling on the fly," Walker explained. "Let's say a tanker truck overturns on the interstate and is spilling chlorine gas. We populate all these real-time data centers on Virtual Alabama. I can click a couple of buttons and see what the temperature is - the wind direction, wind speed, etc.

"You factor all this stuff into a little software program called Aloha that's embedded in Virtual Alabama, and it will give you a plume model and tell you - given the fact this is chlorine gas - it's going to go in this direction, these are the people most likely to die, these are going to be incapacitated."

The hardware, software and licensing fees required to build Virtual Alabama set the state back $150,000. Even at such a bargain price, Walker claims Virtual Alabama is the most complete data set in the country. He doesn't appear to be exaggerating.

In addition to the capabilities already described, Virtual Alabama also features the floor plans for all Alabama schools and can layer data describing the concentration of students on campus at any given time. If a school shooting, or the threat of one, is reported, responders can quickly determine how and where the student population is distributed on campus. And if a school has surveillance cameras, the video can be viewed in real time.

What's more, Walker said Virtual Alabama helps cross the digital divide that exists between wealthy counties and their more rural neighbors.

"We've got some pretty poor rural counties in Alabama. It levels the technological playing field. If you've got a computer, you can layer and tailor just like the wealthier parts of the state," Walker said "We're empowering people who've never been empowered before."


Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.