GIS Plays Key Role in Homeland Security

'Smart' digital mapping databases springing up throughout states

The war against terrorism is being fought on many fronts and in many parts of the world. And at the state and local levels in the U.S., the war is being waged at least partially in cyberspace with the help of geographic information systems (GIS) technology.

The city of Boston, for example, has initiated a pilot project called the Boston Preparedness Pilot that is tapping into the digital mapping and smart database expertise of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). The Boston pilot stems from a larger nationwide program known as the 120 Cities Project, the goal of which is to disseminate what Anita Cohen, director of homeland security at NIMA, calls "a minimum level of geospatial preparedness" down to state and local emergency responders.

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Carl Walter, deputy director of the Boston Police Department's Office of Research and Evaluation, heads the Boston Preparedness Pilot. He characterized the IT-based initiative as crucial to helping the department "come up with critical-infrastructure data that will help us respond to attacks and in our day-to-day policing activities."

City police officials acquired 100 digital mapping files of the entire Boston area from NIMA, including 6-in.-resolution imagery that details the locations of every school, grocery store, hospital, police station, government building, industrial facility and prominent landmark. "We have every piece of information about water [systems] you can possibly imagine," Walter said. "We also have information on every bridge in the city of Boston," as well as data on all major highways, roads and parking lots, he said.

However, the data from NIMA isn't simply a collection of flat files. "It's smart data," said Cohen. In fact, the digital mapping software allows officials to click on any installation depicted on their maps and pull up a wealth of data about the structure. For example, in seconds, emergency planners can determine how many beds are available in a given hospital or how many employees might be in an office building on any given day. They also have access to critical engineering data on bridges, sports stadiums and other large public structures.

"Buildings are a fundamental data layer for critical-infrastructure protection," Walter said.

More important from an antiterrorism perspective, Boston and other cities are taking advantage of a software package known as the Consequence Application Toolset, developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Science Applications International Corp. in San Diego. The software enables planners to quickly analyze a chemical, biological or nuclear explosion and determine in a matter of seconds what geographic area and how many buildings and people are immediately threatened. It also integrates real-time weather data to help determine how and in which direction the toxic plume will spread.

"It's real and something we can run very quickly to see what the hazard area is going to be," said Walter. "We can also integrate our existing evacuation plans."

The next steps in the Boston program are being dubbed collectively Operation Safe City and will focus on automating the collection and reporting of critical-infrastructure data by police and fire officials on the street. The long-term goal is to integrate the system with handheld devices that police and firemen can use in the field in order to send data about buildings in their areas of responsibility to a central data warehouse, said Walter.

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'120 Cities' Program*

Cities are prioritized based on current intelligence threat data. The focus is on:

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Critical infrastructure nodes

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Borders and coastlines

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Transportation networks

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Hydrography data

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Public facilities and buildings

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Communications network nodes

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Major landmarks

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Emergency care facilities

* Program name retained even though number of cities is now much higher.

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