All Together Now
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of a terrorist attack has become very real for local governments. More than half of America’s cities fear terrorist attacks in some form, according to a Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities (NLC) survey this summer (see “International Threats Hit Home for Local Leaders” on page S12).
While the adage “All disasters are local” is true, city, county, state and federal agencies have become more acutely aware of the need to work together to meet threats to homeland security. The National Strategy for Homeland Security — the federal government’s blueprint for responding to terrorist threats — identifies information gathering, analysis and sharing as the foundation for an effective defense against terrorism.
Local governments have always gathered and analyzed information on their various operations, and, in recent years, they have invested heavily in information technology (IT) to manage that process. By its own reckoning, the federal government spends $50 billion on IT annually, and state and local government outlays for IT are even higher. According to the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, state and local governments are expected to spend $78.1 billion on IT in 2002.
Despite those investments, governments have not put the information they have gathered to optimal use. Investigations conducted by the U.S. House and Senate intelligence committees in June 2002 showed that historically, for social and technological reasons, data had not been shared vertically (between local, state and federal governments) or horizontally (between agencies and departments), resulting in “stovepipes” of information. Policy makers now realize that a lack of data sharing not only creates redundant data sets but also hampers government’s ability to anticipate and respond to terrorist activities.
Sharing data and information, both horizontally and vertically, is the most critical aspect of homeland security. “To meet the terrorist threat, we must increase collaboration and coordination — in law enforcement and prevention, emergency response and recovery, policy development and implementation — so that public and private resources are better aligned to secure the homeland,” according to The National Strategy for Homeland Security.
The collaborative information technology
Geographic information systems (GIS) were created expressly to integrate and subsequently share disparate data sets for management, analysis and dissemination. The creation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) has made data sharing easier.
The federal government has been developing NDSI — a geographic framework that includes all levels of government, the private sector and academia — since Executive Order 12906 was issued in 1994. The NSDI encompasses the technologies, policies and people necessary for sharing geospatial data.
The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), which coordinates the development of NSDI with state, local and tribal governments, promotes data sharing through a National Geospatial Clearinghouse. Cooperating with state and local agencies, the FGDC has created geospatial data standards. As a result, good quality, well-documented geospatial data is more readily available than it was even a few years ago. The increased availability of data coupled with cheaper computers and more powerful GIS software has led local governments to expand their use of GIS.
The map, a uniquely concise and elegant communication medium, makes complex information instantly comprehensible in a way not possible with text or tables. The visual capabilities of GIS have revolutionized the way governments manage not only routine tasks but also unusual events.
Using a common GIS-based framework, local government agencies can respond to unusual events, such as a terrorist attack, using readily accessible, current information. Two relatively recent GIS enhancements — incorporation of wireless technologies and Web-based GIS applications — were used in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center (see “A little information and a lot of courage” on page S4).
The lay of the land
GIS is designed to help decision makers understand the geography of a community’s critical infrastructure — e.g., the dams, airports and bridges. By using GIS to overlay data from various sources, city officials can determine what is at risk.
Protecting critical infrastructure means identifying chokepoints — areas of high vulnerability where several critical services come together. For example, a bridge could carry power and telecommunication lines as well as provide the only egress for a populated area. An event at a chokepoint, such as an explosion on that bridge, would have multiple effects. Once chokepoints in a community are flagged, officials can use GIS, which links databases and other constantly updated information sources, to devise strategies for mitigation, or at least preparedness.
In addition to providing access to updated information, GIS aids homeland security efforts by providing a broad scope of data. Therefore, governmental agencies are better able to perform the many tasks associated with homeland security, such as monitoring disease levels in populations, maintaining current inventories of medicines and other supplies and tracking the availability and location of trained personnel.
Expanding the role of GIS
Nearly two-thirds of local governments already use GIS, according to the 2002 Electronic Government Survey by the Washington, D.C.-based International City/County Management Association. Consequently, for most local governments, using GIS for homeland security will not mean implementing an entirely new IT system but expanding an existing one.
However, the presence of GIS should continue to grow, as two important themes routinely surface when emergency response is being evaluated. The first is the desire for better communication between local, state and federal officials. Large-scale events require a mix of responders from different agencies and levels of government, and GIS can bring their disparate sets of data together efficiently.
The second is the need for better data sharing. With homeland security, sharing data has become even more important to people who usually do not talk to each other. Not only is data sharing easier using GIS, it helps build a common purpose between staffs from different disciplines who see how their processes are connected.
A greater good will result when local governments use GIS to meet their new homeland security demands, says Ron Coleman, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Chantilly, Va.-based Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He sees the possibility of emergency planning being replaced by a multidisciplinary approach in which public works, fire and utilities, emergency medical services and health providers “are not just planning because there might be some catastrophic event but they’re planning because it’s good business.”
Monica Pratt is an editor and writer for ESRI, based in Redlands, Calif.