Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and the Alabama Department of Homeland Security have unveiled the Virtual Alabama software program, a limited-access Web site that combines data such as maps, photos and governmental databases from across the state into one centralized electronic location, reports The Tuscaloosa News.
“Alabama is the only state in the union that has this capability,” Riley said at a news conference, where officials demonstrated the state-sponsored Web site.
Michael Jones, chief technologist with Google Earth, says several states are developing Web sites that layer government information into a quickly accessible format, but Alabama is “unique in the United States” because its Web site includes data submitted by every county.
“You just name it and we can load this stuff,” Jim Walker, director of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security told The Tuscaloosa News. “It's become a very powerful tool.”
From fire and police departments responding to emergencies toagencies assessing damage from natural disasters, Virtual Alabama can provide city, county and state officials with information ranging from building layouts to fire hydrant locations with a few mouse clicks.
“If you're a firefighter,” Walker says, “before you go into a burning building, wouldn't you like to know all that stuff?”
Sgt. Andy Norris, public information officer for the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office, spearheaded the data collection on behalf of the county.
He told The Tuscaloosa News that although Virtual Alabama may be used mainly to gather information after a disaster, it will also be used in a criminal situation, if the need arises.
“If you had an event somewhere out in the county, it gives us the ability to look at that area from a bird's-eye view … [and] look at the terrain, look at the layout and at any obstacles that we'd have to take care of before we could respond … in order to keep the event from getting bigger,” Norris says. “It's a great help in that.”
David Hartin, director of the Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency, says the program would be invaluable should a tornado or some other disaster strike.
He also stressed the importance of the commonality of Google Earth's software, which grants access to the system to all agencies that need it, as opposed to unique, individual programs that must be licensed for every computer on which they are installed.
“You're looking at the ability to have multiple points of access for planning purposes as opposed to three computers with the specific program on it,” Hartin says. “It is seamless.”
So, should a tornado strike an Alabama town, officials could use Virtual Alabama to access aerial photographs before and after the tornado to assess damage, determine the property tax valuations of each structure and quickly put together a disaster assistance request for the federal government.
Virtual Alabama is based on a software platform developed by Google.
Walker said the state purchased the software, hardware and license for Google Earth from the company for $150,000 and distributed it to the state's agencies and governments for free.
It has taken about 15 months to compile data from all 67 counties in Alabama, a task that has sometimes bumped up against political and proprietary obstacles.
Riley said some people will be concerned about state government becoming too intrusive, but said that is not the goal of Virtual Alabama. A password is necessary to access the information.
“What we are doing is making government more responsive,” he said.
The idea for Virtual Alabama originated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when state disaster officials noticed there was good information on the aftermath of the storm, but not much on what the coastlines looked like before the hurricane hit.
Walker and Riley said they found that many state and local agencies were doing aerial maps of the state and collecting other useful information, such as the design of public buildings and the location of every fire hydrant, but no one was consolidating it all in a useful fashion.
The state got help from the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and a scientist on loan from the U.S. Army.
Currently, there are 1,860 users across the state tied in to Virtual Alabama, representing 34 federal and 30 state agencies as well as 11 universities, among others.
Each agency has its own firewall that it can use to control the level of information that is accessible.
“It is an amazing thing, and it's going to change the way we do government in Alabama,” Walker says. “And we're the only state in the country that has it.”