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Building on Geospatial Foundations

Community and economic development are intertwined in GeoHuntsville — a local initiative built on the work of the area’s pioneering geospatial companies.

GeoHuntsville Hackathon challenges cyber experts to find efficient responses when disasters strike. Here, Michael Carroll (with headphones), a robotics software engineer for NuSpatial Inc., and Michael Graham, a consultant from Chattanooga, work to find solutions to Hackathon scenarios.

GeoHuntsville Hackathon challenges cyber experts to find efficient responses when disasters strike. Here, Michael Carroll (with headphones), a robotics software engineer for NuSpatial Inc., and Michael Graham, a consultant from Chattanooga, work to find solutions to Hackathon scenarios.

In 2013, Mayor Tommy Battle authorized the creation of the Geospatial Huntsville Corp., also known as GeoHuntsville, a nonprofit initiative that brings together professionals working in the geospatial community throughout the area. These geospatial professionals collaborate on a volunteer basis to provide a safer community, advance their industry and boost local economic development.

“The safety of our community is paramount; this initiative was started with the focus of helping our community’s emergency responders by providing them vital data in the form of geospatial
information that could assist them during a response,” says Jorge Garcia, executive director of the organization. “But those who have been engaged with the initiative from the outset also realized that other benefits could be derived from this undertaking, including fostering innovation and contributing to economic development.”

The Case for an Organization

On April 27, 2011, when a super outbreak of tornadoes produced 358 tornadoes and claimed 238 lives in Alabama, Huntsville and vicinity were especially hard hit. In the Huntsville area, 98 tornadoes took out 115 power transmission structures, resulting in a five-day power outage, as well as outages across communications, infrastructure and financial systems. The scenario mimicked the impact of a catastrophic cyberattack — and as home to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency Headquarters, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Headquarters and other offices that support national security, Huntsville leaders took the community’s vulnerability seriously.

While first responders, utilities and infrastructure workers quickly got the city back in business, the experience left leaders with the understanding that there was more work to be done to be truly prepared for such a catastrophe. Battle saw an opportunity to draw on the extensive expertise of local professionals working in the high-tech fields of energy, geospatial science and technology to help develop better solutions to prepare the city for future threats.

Along with developing high-tech solutions to make Huntsville safer, Battle also wanted to provide those solutions to other municipalities to promote a safer nation. He launched three organizations to jumpstart this process — GeoHuntsville, Energy Huntsville and Cyber Huntsville. Together, they are part of the mayor’s Exemplar City initiative.

Led by a 12-member volunteer board representing industry, government and academia, GeoHuntsville has made strides to develop safety solutions and raise the profile of the geospatial industry in the Huntsville area.

“All of us donate our time to this undertaking because we care about our community and because, ultimately, we realize that if Huntsville is able to put some practical but progressive solutions in place as a result of innovation and collaboration, so too can most communities in America,” Garcia says. “In short, it doesn’t take having the resources of the largest of America’s cities to help ensure that everything possible is being done to make our community better prepared for and resilient to events that require an emergency response.”

Fostering Innovation

In 2014, GeoHuntsville started developing its Blueprint for Safety, a rapid disaster response program that helps municipalities address the requirements needed to build safe, secure and sustainable communities, says Chris Johnson, chief technology officer for the organization. Blueprint for Safety aims to integrate disparate technologies, platforms and data models to enable seamless communication of data, video and imagery in real time to improve regional preparation, protection, response and recovery among partnering agencies. Based on guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies, the program continues to be developed through a series of pilot projects, demonstrations and functional exercises.

Through active demonstration exercises, for instance, GeoHuntsville shows first responders and law enforcement personnel how sensors, Internet of Things technologies, and unmanned aircraft systems can be used to provide information rapidly to decision makers. In July, first responders from Huntsville and Hartselle Police Departments participated in a staged demonstration of local dignitaries being abducted at the Von Braun Center in downtown Huntsville. Through the active demonstration, participants learned how cutting-edge geospatial technologies could be utilized to monitor, control and defuse the situation.

In 2016, GeoHuntsville launched the Huntsville Hackathon, an event co-sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The event challenged teams to develop solutions for some of the nation’s most difficult disaster response challenges. The 2016 event drew about 20 teams and the 2017 event, held in February, attracted 44 teams from across the country.

“There is a definite need for these types of events, to get the information out about the technical gaps, challenges and problem sets for different sectors such as energy, resources, weather and response,” Johnson says. “But also to cultivate a vigorous programming community that is up to speed on current challenges and needs.”

Based on the success of the Huntsville Hackathon, NGA has modeled other events across the country in a similar fashion, Garcia says. The third Huntsville Hackathon is scheduled for
early 2018.

With 300 professional members from across the geospatial science industry, GeoHuntsville has a number of active working groups focused on areas such as education, unmanned aircraft systems, small business and first responders.

ABOVE GeoHuntsville visits the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Virginia in 2016. From left: Former Congressman Robert Cramer, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, GeoHuntsville official Chris Johnson and GeoHuntsville board member Greg Schumann.
 

Boosting the Economy

While GeoHuntsville’s primary agenda is to solve real problems for a safer, more secure community and world, economic development is an important secondary goal. The city has developed a knack for drawing on its past successes and existing businesses to harness additional growth in similar areas, and GeoHuntsville reflects that focus.

One of the oldest companies in the Huntsville area is Intergraph, which started in 1969 as a maker of computer-aided design workstations and has since evolved into a maker of software for a wide variety of design, engineering and mapping applications.

Today, there is a cluster of such companies in the Huntsville area — and leaders hope that GeoHuntsville will help cultivate further growth in the industry while spreading the word that Huntsville is an ideal location for such companies.

“We believe that by helping to set conditions that further expose Huntsville-based companies to the national geospatial architecture, including government, we will help highlight the great innovation and foresight that Huntsville companies offer,” Garcia says.

Through GeoHuntsville, 300 local professionals in the geospatial industry are building stronger connections as they volunteer to solve local and national problems. That cohesive workforce is attractive to groups like NGA, which continues to collaborate with GeoHuntsville on the Hackathon and other projects and is bound to draw the attention of geospatial-focused companies looking to relocate or expand.

“GeoHuntsville continues to influence economic development by raising awareness to existing geospatial capabilities in the region and by leading the way on new developments, integration and testing of emerging trends and innovations in the geospatial sector,” Johnson says.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.

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