Geospatial technology has moved beyond its niche towards a level of ubiquity. David J. Alexander, Director, Geospatial Management Office, Office of the Chief Information Officer, US Department of Homeland Security, explains how this technology is enmeshed in the fabric of the organisation.
How does geospatial information play an important role in homeland security?
Nearly all homeland security missions from back office functions such as facilities management, benefits administration and human capital planning to front line operations in disaster response, border protection, customs enforcement, critical infrastructure and threat reduction rely on geospatial capabilities to conduct their operations.
There is a geospatial component to nearly everything that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does — whether it is a discreet latitude/longitude or address or an indiscreet geographic area such as a debris line, disaster zone, incident location, etc. DHS uses geographic data and imagery to assess risk, monitor infrastructure, secure the border, to expedite assistance to disaster survivors and to accelerate community recovery, and rebuilt after a catastrophic event.
Our human existence is a very visual experience. We understand our environment and our relationships in spatial terms. We react to our changing landscape based on our ability to comprehend and interpret what we understand is happening around us. Geospatial capabilities enable us to link disparate information coming in from multiple channels and stitch it together to reveal the necessary context and understanding required to generate the actionable information that decision makers need and facilitate unity of effort across the whole community.
What is the scope and mandate of the Geospatial Management Office (GMO)?
The GMO resides within the Office of the Chief Information Officer, a division of the DHS Management Directorate. In addition to directing the GMO, the GIO serves as the chief representative for geospatial information and technology for the Homeland Security Enterprise and coordinates the strategic roadmap for the Department’s geospatial architecture.
The primary objective of the GMO is to establish clear and concise policy direction for geospatial information and technology efforts. The desire is that all department have interoperable geospatial system(s) to facilitate coordinated support for DHS’ missions. Further, the scope of the DHS GMO also includes standardising geospatial information technology policies across the department to ensure geospatial IT functional excellence.
In a nutshell, the GMO focuses on areas that cover the core elements of the geospatial information, technology, policy and practice. This structure helps the GIO with shared GIT governance and helps the GMO to manage the geospatial investment portfolio of the department.
Part of the overall homeland security geospatial strategy is to deliver geospatial capabilities based on mission requirements. The Geospatial Concept of Operations (GeoCONOPS) is a seminal piece of this strategy. It provides a mission blueprint to help DHS understand who, what, when, and how key activities across all echelons (federal, state, local, private sector, non-governmental, and citizens) support different missions for our nation’s homeland security including natural disasters, law enforcement, infrastructure protection, and other security events. Homeland security is a very fluid enterprise and the GeoCONOPS is moving from a static document to an online resource that can adapt and respond to its evolving landscape. The most important benefit which the GeoCONOPS provides is a catalogue of support missions, best practices, technical resources, and geospatial data sources available to the geospatial community. As it matures, the GeoCONOPS will be able to provide a point of entry for geospatial practitioners and programmers to assess their capabilities and readiness as well as drive collaboration across programmes.
The Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model is run by the National Hurricane Center (NHC). SLOSH estimates storm surge heights and winds resulting from historical, hypothetical, or predicted hurricanes.
The GMO has been partnering with the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS on the Capabilities and Readiness Assessment Tool (CARAT) and National States Geographic Information Council to advance geospatial preparedness and practice with standard operating guidelines. A future expectation of the GMO is that by making the GeoCONOPS and other online resources, innovators will further take the advantage of the open catalogue to develop applications and services for the community which will be similar to the apps available on Google PlayStore and Apple iTunes for disaster readiness.
The GMO is also involved in advancing geospatial interoperability through the Open Geospatial standards and leadership with the ODNI PM-ISE on the geospatial interoperability reference architecture.
In an emergency, responders must quickly and easily access relevant, reliable, and up-to-date information from multiple partners. Virtual USA (vUSA) and Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER) are two such projects that aim to speed up the process. Can you elaborate how GMO has been helping in these initiatives?
The GMO has been a huge proponent of geospatial preparedness mentality. Geospatial needs to be fast, reliable, interoperable, easy to use, and integrated with the mission and must focus on delivering the right technology at the right time to the right people. Geospatial community needs to adapt the first responder mindset. This can be accomplished by conducting regular exercises to assess our geospatial capabilities and readiness in partnership with the DHS FEMA National Exercise Program.
The geospatial community must also recognise that geospatial has moved beyond a niche technology to a level of ubiquity. Everyone expects to have mapping capabilities at their finger tips — in their car, in their smartphone, and so forth. The GMO has supported this trend by fostering initiatives that integrate across and among partners (federal, state, local, tribal, private, and citizen sectors). The GMO has a strong partnership with DHS Science and Technology and its First Responder Group. This partnership includes support for public safety broad band and GLANSER that are enabled by location aware technology which leverages the lessons learned and successes of legacy E911 and data sharing pilots such as vUSA that demonstrate the feasibility of sharing near real-time critical information.
What led to the development of Geospatial Information Infrastructure and can you elaborate how GII has strengthened the existing system?
The homeland security geographic information infrastructure (GII) was created based on the recommendations from several internal studies and assessments on geospatial information and technology capabilities of the Department which were completed between 2004-2008. These studies identified data dissonance, access, dissemination, and duplication of products and systems as key issues plaguing the homeland security geospatial community. Users were creating maps based on different, multiple sources of the same data. They were not able to distribute these products in a GIS-ready consumable format, and therefore, many map products were duplicated. The GII was engineered to be agile to the evolving requirements of the homeland security enterprise by offering core services for hosting common geospatial data services in a secure, virtual computing environment. It also provided collaboration tools which helped GIS analysts to upload, manage, publish, and share their products directly with mission operators and systems. The GII is providing a common operating platform for numerous DHS internal and external partners.
What are the major challenges that you faced in creating a common architecture for various agencies to share the geospatial information that you provide?
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technical architecture or solution. Competition in the market place is an important driver of innovation. The major issues faced in achieving a national geospatial information technology ecosystem were: ensuring open standards that enable competition and innovation while ensuring the whole community is accessing the most authoritative and trusted information and; providing identity and access management (ICAM) that ensures access to the right data at the right time.
On May 23, 2012 President Obama issued Presidential Memorandum, Building a 21st Century Digital Government. The CIO also released the strategy entitled “Digital Government Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People”, which provides agencies with a 12-month roadmap that focuses on priority areas enabling a more efficient and coordinated digital service delivery. This was recently updated on July 14, 2014. What are the geospatial aspects of this updated digital strategy?
The President’s Management Agenda has been very supportive of place-based initiatives. This includes the geospatial platform that provides support to the opendata.gov initiative which is a key facet of the digital government strategy. Geospatial is inherent in the digital government strategy as it will help the government better target its services, aid citizens in discovering services, and provide government data in a more consumable and efficient manner. For example, the national public alerts, warnings, and notification and the AMBER alert systems leverage geospatial capabilities to disseminate important messages to subscribers and the community on disaster and law enforcement. Climate scientists and risk managers are using government data to better assess the risks and costs associated with changes in sea level or local geomorphology. These are the types of innovations and advancements that I expect to grow exponentially as geospatial information and technology rapidly expands into our government data systems and across the fabric of our lives.