Pacific Northwest to Demo Data-Sharing Platform
Wednesday, September 08, 2010 | Comments
Image courtesy Multnomah County
 
 
Five states in the Pacific Northwest — Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington — are collaborating to create a data-sharing initiative called the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Virtual USA (vUSA) Pilot.
 
The pilot initiative started in September 2009 when the five states’ adjutant generals met and agreed to create a pilot demonstration by October 2010. On July 27, officials from states met face-to-face for the second time to assess the progress made, in addition to what still needs to be done in order to meet the October deadline. The states are now driving toward state-centered demonstrations in October with a regional demonstration planned for December 2010, although an official date for the demonstration has not been determined, said Sean McSpaden, Oregon’s deputy chief information officer and chair for the vUSA PNW pilot’s technical working group. With the help of Pacific Northwest National Labs all five states will likely have baseline capabilities in place by the October deadline, McSpaden said.
 
The demonstration will show the capabilities the platform can offer in the face of a severe winter storm, with each state able to share and view information from other states within their own visualization platforms. The ultimate goal is to ensure that a common operating picture for emergency management and response exists within each of the pilot member states, McSpaden said.
 
Building the Capability 
From October through December 2009, the pilot focused on informing those involved, evaluating what data was available and what was desired, and working with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) vUSA team. Since January 2010, the pilot has focused on system development and deployment.
 
In addition to the daunting task of each state building its own geographic information system (GIS) platform that works within its own jurisdiction, the pilot requires the states to interoperate with the other pilot-member states.
 
To achieve multijurisdictional cooperation at the multistate level, the PNW teams have been working feverously to agree on the basic operations. Several working groups were created. The executive steering group’s primary concern dealt with legal aspects of the memorandum of agreement (MoA). This was modeled largely off the Southeast Regional Operation Platform Pilot (SE ROPP), McSpaden said. The technical working group was tasked with creating the MoA appendix that involved reaching a consensus on file formats, metadata, common information needs, symbology and security.
 
As of press time, the MoA final draft was completed and was circulating all five states for final review and comment, McSpaden said. Consensus had been reached for metadata formats and 30 information needs. A consensus for common symbology is expected by early October. The security governance is still being developed.
 
County Vs. State Approach
States were left to their own governance in creating each GIS-enabled information-sharing platform. At the same time Oregon became involved in the pilot, the state’s Multnomah County (representing nearly 20 percent of Oregon’s population) was already in the planning state of creating the Virtual Emergency Network of Multnomah (VENOM). Oregon decided to support Multnomah County’s development of VENOM rather than create something different at the state level. “I’m a generalist, but from what I’ve heard from emergency managers, response is local,” McSpaden said. “An event happens locally, and first-responders are local.”
 
“The intent became, if we can prove that this concept works, we can start expanding it,” said Dave Stuckey, deputy director, Oregon Emergency Management. “Each county has its own governance. We decided that we’re not going to go in and tell them what to do, but we will encourage it if we can show it has great benefits.”
 
Washington already had its own operational system, the Washington Information Sharing Environment (WISE) when the pilot began. The National Guard developed WISE and then shared the platform with state government partners, said Maj. Orion Inskip, COP DEV team chief, National Guard. “The next phase of development will include establishing a viewer where the county, local and tribal governments can access it. King County was the first to agree to work with us on a statewide platform,” he said.
 
Regardless of platform, each state has six development phases it is processing through to be at a data-sharing level that will work with the pilot. All five states have completed phases one and two, the initial planning and stakeholder engagement phase and the requirement gathering, work books and workshops phase respectively.
 
Alaska has completed the requirements-gathering phase. Idaho and Montana are in the middle of phase three, the solution planning and design phase. All three states elected to create platforms from a state-down approach. Montana has purchased WebEOC and intends to install Mapper Pro in the near future. The Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security (BHS) has been working with the Pacific Northwest National Lab to create the state ESRI viewer. At the moment, the national lab is hosting the viewer, with plans for the BHS to eventually host the viewer, said Robert Feeley, public affairs officer, Idaho BHS. “The Idaho BHS anticipates hosting the vUSA viewer as a part of its overall emergency management broadband network strategy for information sharing with county and tribal jurisdictions,” Feeley said. “The vUSA viewer will be a natural extension of strategy to provide a common operating picture.”
 
Oregon has completed phase four, technical implementation, and is beginning phase five, testing and evaluating the VENOM prototype. Washington is working on phase six with WISE already operating, focusing on implementation and sustainability.
 
With the pilot’s progression, one of the most persistent problems is the lack of funding and resources states can commit to the project. Oregon used existing grant funding, and the state has estimated $138,000 committed to the project through October, said Dave Houghton, director of Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management.
 
The Idaho BHS is funding personnel costs for the pilot as part of its regular program costs. The bureau had the software and hardware needed to participate in the pilot without new purchases, Feeley said.
 
The development of WISE was funded almost completely through the cost to pay the two members of the development team. The team consists of two traditional guardsmen on temporary orders and the support of existing staff, Inskip said. The only software purchased is the Adobe developer suite. “We plan to purchase a license for ArcGIS Server, but only to expand the existing capability. All states are already federally funded to have at least one ArcGIS Server license to support installation management.”
 
Interoperability 
Before the pilot program began, the region had no way to share real-time or static information among states. “There was a pressing need for real-time and actionable information,” said Stuckey.
 
vUSA is vendor agnostic with the goal to make sure all the technology can interoperate. “We’re trying to avoid what you see in the radio communications world, where equipment doesn’t work together without requiring users to purchase a particular vendor’s products,” Houghton said.
 
“The message that we would like to share with others that are going through the development process is that it is about the data, not the viewer,” Inskip said. “Don’t vest yourself in any particular viewer. First off, everyone has a viewer to sell you, but that doesn’t mean you can access the data you want or need. And second, developing a viewer is now technologically attainable with the resources that you already have and that are in the public domain and open source world. We have created WISE without any measurable investment in software or hardware; the bulk of our effort has been in building the relationships required to access relevant and useful data.”
 
Meeting Goals
Tests done August 3 with the Oregon National Guard showcased the platform’s potential. During a live demonstration, the National Guard showed automatic identification of 2,300 radio frequency identification (RFID)-tagged pieces of equipment traveling in and around Alaska, Oregon and Washington. Washington and Oregon displayed the information on portable operation centers, and Idaho and Montana were connected and used VoIP through VSAT. The workshop was the first time military defense knowledge was integrated with VENOM and vUSA technology. “The world is conquered in small steps,” McSpaden said. “Military data shared with civilian authorities in real time is very significant.”
 
“The importance of the partnership and data sharing with the National Guard and other efforts like it is grounded in the fact that disasters and the required emergency response that follows them simply don’t confine themselves neatly to a single jurisdictional boundary,” McSpaden said. “The flooded river will flow wherever it wants to flow. If we can successfully demonstrate this kind of information-sharing capability within the Pacific Northwest – a region that includes portions of the Pacific Ocean and over 1 million square miles of land – a national virtual information-sharing capability is within our reach.”
 
Another example of information sharing within the region is a partnership between Washington and Oregon PNW pilot teams that allows access to state Department of Transportation road camera feeds from Oregon’s southern border with California to Washington’s northern border with Canada and all along the shared eastern border with Idaho.
 
Multnomah County is still in talks with its public-safety agencies to uncover added value the platform can serve for them. Obvious benefits include creating an active perimeter in real-time for hazardous material incidents, as well as active shootings. Public works also see immediate benefits with regard to water distribution and transportation, including locations for detours, primary routes and critical infrastructure that could be damaged/deemed unsafe from certain disasters, Houghton said.
 
WISE has the ability to display feeds from ESI’s WebEOC. “We want to expand our capability to include the CAD from the first responders once we start working with local governments,” Inskip said. “Technologically, we can display any data from any source; the challenge is accessing data.”
 
Other potential first responder benefits include access to information on stream gauge, weather, road conditions/closures, traffic flows, lightning, shelters (both for pets and people), seismic monitoring, tsunami watches and watersheds, McSpaden said. “It is our hope and belief that if everyone can see the same information, the real-time situational awareness will increase response time, keep emergency responders safer, and save lives and property.”
 
“As long as we keep the needs of the practitioners at the forefront of everything we do, the PNW pilot will be a success. If we focus only on technology, on GIS viewers and data, we’ll fail,” McSpaden said.
 
Editor’s Note: For more on DHS vUSA initiatives, see “Disaster Response in the Gulf” in the September issue of MissionCritical Communications.
 
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