Virtual USA to Enhance Disaster Management

by Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

The devastating earthquake in Haiti, reinforced earlier today by a lower-magnitude shock, has provided yet another urgent reminder of the need to quickly access and share real-time emergency-management data across the full spectrum of response, ranging from the use of local urban search-and-rescue teams to the decisions made by government leaders across the globe.  Moreover, to be most effective, multinational responders from nations as disparate as Ecuador and Israel must have accurate and timely data, analyzed at a unified strategic level.  Partly for that reason, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new Virtual USA effort is working to establish an effective technical model for the exchange of emergency-management data across multiple systems.  Success in this effort could significantly enhance the response to disasters such as the Haitian earthquake.

The goal of Virtual USA is to link disparate critical-asset data sources such as the information needed on utility status, emergency-response capabilities, and shelter locations – to take just three likely examples – across multiple emergency-management platforms, particularly those enabled by GIS (Geographic Information System) technology.  Over the past several years, a number of GIS-based emergency-management tools have been developed across the nation, particularly at statewide operations centers.  These new GIS tools are now used daily both to document and coordinate incident responses and to display the status of various emergency resources.

Although GIS data has long been captured and shared in a standard format, the tools (even web-based solutions) that present the data vary visually from system to system. Moreover, emergency-management agencies have purchased or developed several different types of systems – ranging from Google Earth KML to Adobe Flex GeoRSS – for displaying geo-coded data.  For that reason, even as emergency-management centers themselves have evolved to engage and coordinate their operations more effectively across jurisdictions, they sometimes have found it difficult to share geo-coded data, including the availability and status of various resources.

A Major and Measurable Target: Actionable Data Among the principal objectives of Virtual USA is to facilitate the exchange of “actionable” data across multiple state systems.  One near-term effort involves the exchange of data between the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Interoperability Picture for Emergency Response (VIPER) and the “Virtual Alabama” GIS-based emergency-management system, each of which uses a different GIS technological platform.  The current effort involves the development of what is called sever-based software that is able to convert and exchange the different data formats – KML and GeoRSS – in real time, thereby enabling VIPER and Virtual Alabama to view each other’s emergency-response data through their native interfaces.

This capability represents a key tenet of the Virtual USA philosophy – namely, to leverage existing investments and avoid the need for participants to purchase new technologies or be re-trained on different tools.  In the current fiscal climate, not incidentally, this probably is the only approach that is or could be acceptable to state participants.

Although the standardization of data across center-based GIS tools represents an important step, the exchange of data to and from the field is where the greatest value may be derived.  In an emergency situation such as the Haitian earthquake, early damage assessments and communications must come from equipment already in the field, notably cell phones (both traditional and “smart”).  Significant strides have been made – since, and at least partly because of, the poorly coordinated response to Hurricane Katrina – in developing technological solutions that quickly deploy mobile cell network infrastructures, even when no existing infrastructure remains.

These solutions provide a unique opportunity to leverage the data and communications capabilities of the extensive government and consumer cell-phone infrastructure already in place.  Indeed, the Gartner Group recently forecast that, by 2013, smart phones will probably overtake personal computers as the most commonly used device for accessing web-based content. 

A Smart Start on Major Improvements Unfortunately, there is even more variation – similar to the variations in technical platforms at center-based systems – in hardware and software capabilities in the field, particularly among smart phones.  Even websites designed for mobile browsers do not work the same, or at all, on a Blackberry (as opposed to an iPhone, for example).  Moreover, in an emergency situation, it can take too long and often be too difficult to deploy a single “preferred” technical platform to the field in a timely way.  Development of the capability both to communicate quickly and to receive updates from virtually any cell-phone-based device therefore should be included within the framework of the Virtual USA effort in order to take full advantage of the technology already available.

An impressive example of how to leverage existing cell-phone-based infrastructures in emergency situations is the new field of Crisis Mapping.  Online services such as Ushahidi, originally created to receive and map SMS text-message alerts of violence in Kenya, can be used to better focus emergency responses by aggregating and mapping field reports from the general public.  More importantly, these services can be used to send critical information to the general public via text messaging, alerting those in specific areas exactly where to go to find lifesaving resources and/or essential services such as medical attention, food, and shelter. 

The longer-term goal of Virtual USA, of course, is to interconnect emergency-management data across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  The exchange of real-time data between Virginia and Alabama represents a good start in this area, and should generate a number of important lessons learned, both technological and operational.  As the program matures, so should the nation’s ability to fully exploit the capabilities of network-enabled devices wherever they are, in any city, county, or state throughout the country.