Home to more than 5.5 million people, the Washington, D.C., area is the seventh largest metropolitan region in the nation, and according to one publication, among the top 20 best cities in which to live on the planet. In addition to the District of Columbia, the National Capital Region (NCR) also includes eight surrounding counties and 13 cities and towns. Unbeknownst to its multitude of residents, workers, and tourists, those jurisdictions are communicating, collaborating and improving safety on a whole new level—a digital one. KCI led efforts to develop and implement a geospatial data exchange (GDX), a tool that streamlines data sharing across the region and allows planners and emergency managers access to the information they need to make real-time and possibly life-saving decisions.
The GDX was the brainchild of the District of Columbia’s Program Manager for Geospatial Intelligence, Robert Horne. “As the leg man for each inauguration, I had to locate all assets and get them approved by the federal agencies,” he said. The seven-week process of walking back and forth across the mall multiple times each day led Horne to conceptualize methods of easily and securely sharing situational awareness information. At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was piloting Virtual USA (vUSA), an information sharing program.
After securing a $600,000 Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant, Horne and KCI Project Manager Heidi L. Hammel, GISP, PMP, began an eight-month journey to transform vUSA into a robust, secure data brokerage that met the needs of the individual jurisdictions and agencies that operate within the region.
GDX is a secure data broker that can be integrated into existing applications. It is not:
Many stakeholders required a higher level of security than offered through the DHS pilot of vUSA. GDX shares data via both the Internet and the more private NCR-net, and allows users to define at an individual level to whom access is given for each dataset. Members can pick and choose up and down the federal, state, local, private, regional, or event/response-driven distribution channels. “Our goal really is that we want people to share with everybody,” said Horne. “We want people to post data for the common good.”
Buy-in was essential among the various stakeholders. “Technologically this was an easy project,” said Horne. “Politically it was a nightmare.” The team had to overcome the old-school mentality of relying on e-mail and CD transfers as well as a general reluctance to share. Hammel worked with each of the main 22 jurisdictions represented on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, along with a multitude of federal agencies and regional organizations, to identify individual needs, communicate the benefits of the exchange, and explain how the system works, specifically that the program is not another viewer or application.
“We don’t share physical data; we don’t store data; we’re not a data warehouse,” said Hammel. “We’re a traffic cop.” Jurisdictions serve up information through web or map services on their own servers, and the GDX allows them to post a link to that URL and to specify with whom the data can be shared. The system is dynamic, so updates are accessible as they occur.
Until the GDX, no place existed where everybody who has an interest in what’s happening in the NCR could share data, according to Vice President and Geospatial Solutions Regional Practice Leader Douglas V. Goldsmith. “It creates an opportunity with limited cost for people to really be engaged and come up with a regional and even bigger-than-regional plan,” he said. Gone are the days of walking with a map in hand, or even e-mailing an attached data file.
We’re creating something that’s not only a data exchange, but also a communication tool. Data can be shared not just with one or two agencies, but multi-jurisdictionally, and up and down and across each governmental hierarchy, so that if there was an incident, the response time would be reduced and the ability to communicate the best data available would be there in real time. The taxpayers are safer because of that.
Robert Horne, Program Manager for Geospatial Intelligence District of Columbia Office of the Chief Technology Officer
When the initial data offering went live on August 1, the GDX became the nation’s first operational node in what could become a virtual network across the country. Interest outside the region is growing exponentially. Horne has received requests to join the exchange from jurisdictions outside the region, including the Delmarva Peninsula, adjacent counties in Maryland and Virginia, and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
On an even grander scale, the development team is working with DHS to make sure the GDX stays interoperable with future versions of vUSA. “Washington, D.C., is a very busy region, and the NCR’s data needs can be very intense, but we share the same issues as any large metropolitan area,” said Horne. “What we hope is that they can build on what we have done.”
KCI is currently working under a second UASI grant to prepare a five-year strategic plan and develop the governance, charter, and operational policies and procedures necessary to ensure the tool remains a part of the national fabric, while meeting the needs of the jurisdictions and agencies within the region into the foreseeable future.